WAR WITH THE NEWTS
Created by the ensemble
Adapted from the novel by Karel Čapek
Presented by Sandbox Theater
Performing at Park Square Theatre – Thrust Stage
If you hang around the Twin Cities theatre scene long enough, you’ll always notice a trend that dominates any theatre season. Last year it was the year of the musical, with companies of every stripe doing their best song and dance. This season, however, the main theme has been revivals and remounts by companies in town of important works in their histories.
Whether tied to an anniversary (such as Ten Thousand Things‘ remount of The Unsinkable Molly Brown; the first musical to get the company’s signature minimalist treatment), a major event in a company’s life (such as the Guthrie Theater‘s artistic director Joe Dowling‘s decision to remount his hit productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and recreate his Broadway production of Juno and the Paycock as part of his farewell season) or both (such as the Jungle Theater‘s remount of Gertrude Stein and A Companion kicking off its 25th Anniversary and being the swan song for artistic director Bain Boehlke), a remount is always a tricky beast. The good remounts (like the ones listed here) use the opportunity to double down on the material and explore it anew. Two great examples of the revival as reexamination are going on right now with Sandbox Theatre‘s War With The Newts and Frosty Bob and J’s Summer Camp‘s Utopiacopia.
Unfortunately for me, I did not see the original production of War With the Newts when Sandbox Theatre debuted the piece in 2007. Back then, the ensemble created adaptation of Karel Čapek‘s classic science fiction satire (led by then artistic director and project lead Ryan Hill) was a watershed moment for the company; establishing them and their their ensemble-created and driven aesthetic as a major force in the theatre scene. And now, after eight seasons of presenting acclaimed work (and winning critical hosannas from all the critics in town – including us), the company has returned to this seminal work in its history. I say return as opposed to remount because, in true Sandbox fashion, the company has taken the original script (with a few new additions by Mr. Hill), torn the original source material apart, and rebuilt the work anew. And what they have come up with is an audacious, unsettling work that is less of a satire and more of a bleak parable about the perils of nationalism, consumerism, and society’s self-destructive nature.
Any attempts at safely distancing yourself from what you are about to see go out the window when you enter the Andy Boss Thrust Stage at Park Square; the newts are crawling all over the space. This ties into the prologue of the piece as we start the story with a prologue that sets it in motion. In the aftermath of the great newt / human war, the newts have won and Marenka (Evelyn Digirolamo), the only human remaining who is slowly dying, has been telling her newt followers that they must stop the current newt on newt fighting. To remind them of what they could lose, the newts retell their history to their fellow newts (ie. we the audience). After being discovered by Captain J. von Toch (Wade Vaughn), the newts are exploited by the businessman Bondy (Gregory Parks) and his assistant Pavondra (Kristina Fjellman) and then sold as a commodity item to society. Eventually the newts start to evolve, learn, and frighteningly fight back.
What’s fascinating about this production is that it takes Čapek’s story and turns it into the newts’ creation myth. This notion of the piece as a quasi-religious rite is further enhanced by the primitive set design (by Derek Lee Miller), the tribal music (thanks to music director and co-project lead Tim Donahue), and in particular the use of masks to denote the human characters (designed by Mr. Hill). Speaking of the design, Kathy Kohn and Mandi Johnson‘s costumes for the newts themselves are amazing and disturbing in equal measure. When combined with the dark makeup the actors are wearing it teeters towards almost looking like blackface, but the payoff for that comes starting at the end of Act One, when the demonic Fat Woman (brought to life by a fearless Heather Stone) first using the newts as carnival subjects, and then selling them as slaves at auction.
With any ensemble driven work, especially with work as dark and loaded as this, you need a fearless ensemble that can deliver and a director to help guide them to bring all the messy, uncomfortable, yet vital bits to the surface. Thanks to director Peter Heeringa and this spectacular ensemble (which also includes Mr. Miller and Megan Campbell Lagas) they not only manage to create fantastically rich performances across the board, but also manage to create some of the most evocative staging I’ve seen this season (such as our first/last meeting with The Great Salamander, a disturbing commercial for Lux Soap for cleaning newts, and a hurricane-leveled New Orleans being just three examples).
Once again, Sandbox Theatre takes unusual source material and manages to create theatrical magic. In returning to War With The Newts, the company has torn apart one of their greatest triumphs as a company and rebuilt it into a pitch-black parable about assimilation, evolution, and societal self-destruction. And thanks to a gutsy production created and performed by an amazing ensemble, this is a story that we need to hear for the good of human- (and newt-) kind.
In a roundabout way, the destruction of self also figures into the theme of Utopiacopia; the remount of Frosty Bob and J’s Summer Camp‘s first big hit production from last year. As written and performed by Justin Caron and directed by his partner in crime Robert Frost, Utopiacopia is a messy, fabulous, and yet shockingly profound look at trying to run away to find something better, when in reality “better” is what you make of it in front of you. Not for nothing is one of the main characters Dorothy (yes, that Dorothy), who accidentally gets stuck on the space ship bound for the planet Utopiacopia and runs afoul with the too-eager volunteer flight attendant Marcy (both roles played by Mr. Caron). This work is a very meta-theatre take on identity especially as things go hilariously (and at one point, heartbreakingly) wrong for Marcy, Dorothy, and the other passengers (read: the audience) as everything starts to break down; just as Mr. Caron gleefully shatters the fourth wall at the top of the show. While I would have loved a more physical differentiation between the characters, Mr. Caron (as directed by Mr. Frost) invests both characters with so much heart and wit that you can’t help but cheer both women on as they try to find their own utopias. Highly recommended!
Sandbox Theatre‘s production of War With The Newts continues through May 30; with performances Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm. All performances take place at Park Square Theatre‘s Andy Boss Thrust Stage, located at the lower level of 20 W 7th Place in St. Paul. Tickets are $25 and can be purchased at Park Square’s site.
Frosty Bob and J’s Summer Camp‘s production of Utopiacopia continues through May 24; with performances Friday, Saturday, and Sunday night at 7pm, with doors opening at 6pm. All performances take place at the Bryant-Lake Bowl, located at 810 W Lake St in Minneapolis. Tickets are $8-15 and can be purchased on the Bryant-Lake Bowl’s site.
Photo Credits: Sandbox Theatre, Heidi Bohenkamp
Originally Published on 22 May 2015 for l’étoile