A little boy in a red snowsuit wanders through a snow-covered cityscape. It’s an iconic image from children’s literature, and the Seattle Children’s Theatre’s newest production animates Peter’s story.
The Snowy Day and Other Stories by Ezra Jack Keats begins with Peter, age four, exploring the snow. The play continues with three more of Keats’ books, starring Peter as he grows older: Whistle for Willie, Goggles! and A Letter to Amy.
The Snowy Day, which won the Caldecott Medal in 1963, was groundbreaking because the winsome main character is black. But the issue of race never even comes up in the story. Peter’s just a little boy doing what little boys do.
Keats didn’t have children of his own, and yet he manages to capture the essence of childhood. Peter wonders at the new snow, learns to whistle to his pet dog, runs away from bullies and invites a girl to his birthday party. These are themes all children can relate to, regardless of whether they are black, live in a city, and have a mom, a dad or a dog.
Puppetry and physical humor
The production uses both live actors and shadow puppets to tell Peter’s story. At first, it is confusing. A full-grown adult actor (Mikell Sapp) plays Peter, but his puppet version is the beloved little boy silhouette we know from the book. His mother is played by a slight young woman (China Brickey), but her puppet takes on a matronly buxom shape. It took a few scenes before I could suspend my skepticism and just enjoy the mastery of the staging. You see actors and shadow puppets, in front of and behind fabric screens, with layers of interaction.
The puppetry is lots of visual fun. In a scene from Goggles!, Peter and his friend Archie play pretend with a pair of goggles they find. Will they be deep sea divers? Motorcycle racers? Astronauts? Puppets illustrate their imaginative brainstorming better than any actor could.
The shadow puppets also portray a delightful range of emotion, with just the slightest gesture. Peter slouches forward, disappointed. His mother leans in, concerned. His dog, Willie, dances on his hind legs, ecstatic. And the puppets are beautifully manipulated — you never see the hands working them below.
I love the illustrations in Keats’ books, and the set was inspired by the textures of his collages. But when projected onto large screens, the patterns went slightly out of focus, just enough to be distracting.
If you love Keats’ writing, you’ll be happy that the dialogue of the play stays true to the language of the books. The actors add in lots of comic asides, from exaggerated running in place to making Peter’s letter dance in the wind. (The "wind" is played by the third member of the cast, H. Adam Harris.) The physical humor brings to life the levity of the books. After all, Peter’s a child. When Peter tries to whistle, every attempt — phhhhhhbbbbt! — comes out with a shower of spit. It sets all the children in the theater giggling. Juvenile humor, yes, but just right for this audience.
At the end of the show, my 5-year-old summed it up perfectly: “It was silly.”
I fully expected to retreat to the theater’s cry room with my 1-year-old; instead, he sat quietly transfixed through the entire 75-minute performance. My 5-year-old, however, started to fidget halfway through. The story is charming but slow-moving, especially the snow scenes. The play is recommended for ages 4 and up, and it's best suited for kids younger than second or third grade.
If you go ...
When: The Snowy Day and Other Stories by Ezra Jack Keats runs through Feb. 26 at the Seattle Children’s Theatre.
Where: Charlotte Martin Theatre in Seattle Center, 201 Thomas Street, Seattle
Parking: Try street parking or one of the surface lots in the neighborhood.
Tips: Download the Active Audience Guide for kids activities connected to the play. Make “snow paint,” write a letter, learn about shadow art and more.
Nearby fun: Check out ParentMap’s guide to Seattle Center.