Fort Worth — Johnny Simons must have had a weird experience with a zumba class, because in his new play Nekkid With the Cats, A Wisepecker Conundrum at Hip Pocket Theatre he sends his protagonists into an unsettlingly bestial adult world of aerobic dance and feline ferocity.
Tom Wisepecker (Gary Payne) is fed up with his wife, Gayle Wisepecker (Kristi Ramos Toler). Among other complaints, his focus falls on his wife’s penchant for dancing naked with cats. Given that the Ensemble opens the show wielding lifelike cat puppets (designed by Lake Simons), one might assume that Gayle literally takes her clothes off and writhes around a bunch of kitty cats. However, when Tom drives Gayle, her sister Lillian Wrathpath (Salone Sasser) and their mother Mattie Raye Wrathpath (Louann Gary) to zumba class, the cats are revealed to be the Ensemble as the members of the class, led by the seductive Footsie Evers (Carmen Scott). Tom stumbles into the class and soon finds himself “nekkid with the cats” as it were.
Any semblance of a natural narrative arc starts to dissolve from there. Michael Joe Goggans has a short part as a lothario marriage counselor named Dr. Wolfgang Weir, but his reason for being there is flimsy, despite being the funniest part of the show.
However, narrative is relative, especially in Johnny Simons’ world. What matters is the content, and that exceeds expectation, though in an interesting way. One of the defining qualities of Simons’ and Hip Pocket’s work is his full embrace of fantastical storytelling. His work is often well beyond the realms of reality, but it thrives because it comes by its quirk genuinely.
This show features a more adult theme in general, which itself is a minor step off HPT’s typically well worn path of family-friendly fair, but along with the mature content, the humor has also matured, in a way.
There is more self-referential and fourth wall-breaking humor than a typical Hip Pocket show. Not to any detriment. It’s pulled off quite well. But, it is different. And it creates an odd internal feeling. The show is one of the best Hip Pocket has put on recently, but there’s at least a small sliver of longing for the more goofy fun that normally populates their shows. A minor quibble for an otherwise excellent performance.
The performances are the glue to this crazy story. Payne and Toler could easily have been married for 30 years given their chemistry. The exasperated spouses trope is played out, but they manage to breath a little humor into it. Louann Gary has a great time. Her matriarchal tyrant is gleefully caustic and over-the-top. She even gets a few pratfalls, which she executes with all the efficiency of Chevy Chase in his prime.
Scott is downright sultry, and her exaggerated Latino accent makes her like a dominatrix cartoon version of Sofia Vergara. Managing a balance between sexy and funny ain’t easy, but she sure makes it look like it is.
Finding balance is never assured in this offbeat comedy. Whether in the narrative or the struggles of the characters to stay clothed and dander free, Nekkid With the Cats is just about the most hilarious exploration of zumba culture ever staged. Just watch out for claws.