Theater Review: The Catamounts Bring Walt Disney Back to Life in A Public Reading

Paul Borrillo as Walt Disney.
Paul Borrillo as Walt Disney.
Michael Ensminger

The Catamounts are the wittiest theater troupe around — and, in many ways, the most charmingly inventive. When artistic director Amanda Berg Wilson learned that space at Boulder’s Dairy Center for the Arts, their usual venue, would eventually be unavailable because of construction, she put the current production, A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney, in a large room that’s part of Madelife, a store and gallery that — in true Boulder lingo — describes itself as “a launching pad for artists and entrepreneurs founded on mentorship and collaboration.” The room isn’t set up as a theater, but the company brought in risers and chairs, hung lights and installed a movable bar. The result is one of those unexpected, welcoming, off-the-beaten-track playing spaces that remind you of the artistic ferment in New York back when almost every loft, basement, bar-room floor, even patch of sidewalk might be commandeered for a performance. Attend a Catamounts show on the right evening, and you’ll be treated to free food afterward, along with craft beer and a chance for discussion. After all, this company bills its work as “theatre for the adventurous palate.”

The Catamounts definitely pick inventive scripts, in this case the regional premiere of Lucas Hnath’s A Public Reading, which is indeed set as a reading. The four members of the cast sit at a long table with water glasses and jugs in front of them and scripts at hand. There’s Walt Disney himself (or, rather, the actor playing him); Disney’s brother, Roy; his Daughter (so identified) and her husband, Ron. The time is clearly the present, since everyone has a cell phone, but Walt/actor is most decidedly inhabiting the psyche of the real legendary filmmaker, and the others also appear to be the people they’re playing.

There have been many ugly rumors about Walt Disney: that he spied for the FBI, that he was a racist and anti-Semite, that he crushed labor unions. Also, that he planned to have his head cryonically frozen when he died. These rumors are disputed as avidly as they’re propagated, but the script makes use of most of them because this isn’t a biographically accurate Walt Disney we’re experiencing, but Walt Disney as passed through Hnath’s fertile mind: a monster of ego who thinks he can create and manipulate the real world just as he does his movies and theme parks. If lemmings won’t go over a cliff for one of his nature movies, he’ll just help them along. He tramples on and ultimately betrays his kinder and more reasonable brother. He can’t understand why Daughter won’t name one of her children after him, pressing her until she erupts: “Because when I say your name, I think all sorts of things I don’t want to think.” The language is repetitive and staccato, with a lot of unfinished sentences: Disney uses “cut to” to signal a new scene and, with increasing frequency, to cut off anyone who disagrees with him.

In a virtuoso performance, Paul Borrillo holds the audience spellbound for seventy minutes with the sheer unmitigated awfulness of the central figure. Mark Collins provides valuable counterpoint as a very human Roy, who may be dependent on his overbearing sibling for a living but still has the integrity to question some of Walt’s most outrageous actions — if only with resigned or quizzical looks. There’s a needed and occasional glimpse of real feeling from Lindsey Pierce as Daughter. But while the script has a farcical, over-the-top quality, Jason Maxwell makes son-in-law Ron — who’s admittedly supposed to be a dope — too much of a smiley, mindless caricature.

A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney is primarily memorable as a character study, though it does have things to say about fascination with the artificial, the desire to control the world, and the way mortality eventually brings down even the most powerful and self-delusional. In the end, Roy’s ideas prevail and Disney’s passionately planned ideal village proves as ephemeral as Ozymandias’s empire — though surely every breathing human being, no matter how humble, understands Disney’s final lament: “Now that I’m gone, the world just stops.”

The message here is in the medium: The production itself proves that even if huge, fixed and mighty projects eventually always fall, small projects that are cheeky, fast-moving and inventive will find ways to persist — at least in the hands of the Catamounts.

A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney, presented by the Catamounts through March 28 (shows Friday-Sunday) at Madelife, 2000 21st Street, Boulder, 720-468-0487, thecatamounts.org.


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