By Charles Brousse
Sometimes, in their understandable desire to encompass everything they are thinking about at the moment they are putting words on screen or paper, playwrights try to squeeze a multitude of subjects into about two hours on stage. Writers in their early careers who want to show off how knowledgeable they are, and adapters of popular novels who don’t want to be accused of leaving out “the most important part,” are the most susceptible to this temptation, despite the evidence that it almost always leads to confusion and a lack of focus.
This seems to have happened with Berkeley Repertory Theatre (BRT)’s American premiere of 946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips, on stage in the company’s Roda Theatre through January 15. It’s an adaptation by English author Michael Morpurgo (War Horse) of his best-selling novel that was directed toward young readers, but also appealed to an older generation interested in the events that preceded the Allies’ D-day invasion of continental Europe in World War II. Although it has some fine moments by the versatile cast, the promised “magical” stagecraft is disappointing and the narrative thread is a bit of a mess. It’s not all Morpurgo’s fault, of course, since the play was developed in collaboration with Cornwall’s Kneehigh theatre collective, director Emma Rice, the Birmingham Rep and who knows who else. “Many cooks … etc.”
Before getting into specifics, here’s a little background on the relationship between BRT and Kneehigh: According to the timeline in the Tips program, it began 10 years ago when BRT staff saw a Kneehigh traveling show. Captivated by its ingenious, multi-disciplined approach to storytelling—which utilizes puppets, miniatures, special lights and scenic and sound effects—a deal was struck to incorporate selected Kneehigh projects in future BRT seasons. Prior to Tips, there have been three of these: The Wild Bride (2011, with a reprise in 2013), Tristan & Yseult (also 2013) and An Audience with Meow Meow (2014). The first two in particular were favorably received by critics and local audiences. Tony Taccone, BRT’s artistic director, has publicly expressed his admiration for Kneehigh’s willingness to take risks as they experiment with a new theatrical idiom.
Returning to the problems with Tips, there’s a strong hint in the title. ‘946’ is linked by a colon with The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips, as if the two are one and the same. I imagine that many, like myself, wondered what that meant, especially when we discovered that 946 related to the number of military lives lost in “Exercise Tiger,” a rehearsal for the Normandy invasion on a South Devon beach, when poor communications among the Western Allies allowed German submarines to attack the landing craft at will. Then we learned that “Adolphus Tips” was a cat, and the “amazing” part of his story was that he was lost in the battle and then found by some African-American soldiers who restored him to his frantic owner, a little girl named Lily Tregenza.
Follow me so far? The three narratives—a botched training exercise, a little girl with a lost cat and African-Americans earning the thanks and respect of local villagers who have been dislocated by their activities—are blended together in a theatrical collage that doesn’t allow any of them to become dominant. Unfortunately, it also leaves us with the feeling that the search for a cat, with its sentimental implications, is as important as the military disaster and the wasted lives associated with it.
Then there is the Kneehigh/BRT staging, which is below what we have come to expect. This is particularly true of Tips, a puppet cat, who is too small and too limited in its movements to make much of an impression. Size is also a factor in depicting the tiny landing crafts as they are being “sunk” in downstage tubs of water, and the other battle scenes are similarly pedestrian.
Despite all of this, I have to say that Tips is a pleasant holiday show, with a great cast headed by Katy Owen as Lily, whose energy and agility as she scampers about the stage searching for her cat, are truly wondrous to behold.
NOW PLAYING: 946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips runs through January 15 at Berkeley Rep’s Roda Theatre, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley; 510/647-2949; berkeleyrep.org.