Harriet Hopperdoodle's Hair-Brained History Test!
nytheatre.com review by Kiran Rikhye
August 17, 2006
Maybe it's just a reflection of my own childhood impulses to act out, but I feel like children's shows and children's literature are at their best when they are...well, naughty. Subversion and mischief seem more fun than moralizing and discipline, so I was a bit disappointed when Harriet Hopperdoodle's Hair-Brained History Test—an energetic and endearingly well-intentioned children's show on tour from Kansas—opened by telling its audience when to clap, when to laugh, and when and how to snore along with the main character, who falls asleep whenever she studies history.
Okay, maybe orderly audience participation can be fun. But the whole show smacked a little too much of school for my taste—the poor unsuspecting children in the audience were even put on the spot and quizzed about what they had learned at the end of the show! Call me a troublemaker, but I thought this was a time to relax and have fun.
The show revolves around Harriet Hopperdoodle (played with infectious enthusiasm by Jeanne Beechwood) a rebellious student at Theodore J. Fringe Elementary School who needs to study for a history test on famous inventors. Harriet falls asleep as she's trying to study, only to wake up and find that Benjamin Franklin is in her room. Naturally, Ben shows her (with the help of a little song and dance number) how fun inventing can be.
Over the course of the night, Harriet is visited by Thomas Edison, Marie Curie, and Wilbur and Orville Wright, and by the morning, she has, of course, developed a newfound love of history and scientific invention. All of the inventors are played by Jon Copeland, with the exception of Wilbur Wright, who is a puppet operated and voiced by Copeland as he simultaneously plays Orville. (The play's piece de resistance is without a doubt the giggle-inducing Wright Brothers' duet "Two Heads Are Better Than One," led by Orville with Wilbur singing backup).
I suppose I wouldn't have minded the show's rules and quizzes if it had been more successfully educational. But much of the information about the inventors is communicated too quickly and with too many distractions to be easily understood by younger children, and when the show manages to be clear, I'm not sure how valuable its lessons are. Not to be overly sensitive, but do kids really need to learn that girls can be scientists because they have "woman's intuition"? Unfortunately Marie Curie sings an entire song about this (after telling us that she is working on "beauty solutions for the female scientist" and a "fashion tribute to radium").
If it's necessary to tackle gender issues here, perhaps a better message would simply be that girls can be good at science, not that they can be good at science because they possess folkloric feminine powers. I am certain that the production's heart is in the right place, but when one (female) child in the audience who correctly answered a pop quiz question was congratulated with "Great job! You're a girl!" I couldn't help but feel that the poor kid was more likely to leave feeling self-conscious than empowered.
The sheer enthusiasm of these performers was tremendously appealing. It's clear they love what they do and I can honestly say that I wish them all the luck in the world and hope they return to New York soon. I also hope, however, that their gender politics get a bit of a makeover, and that their next show gives children more educational substance, more subversive fun, or, in the best case scenario, more of both.