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Buggin’ out

Despite best efforts of Insurgo cast, The Insect Play never quite takes flight

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Jacob Coakley

For its current piece, Insurgo Theater Movement has unearthed a play from the cabinet of obscurity. From the noted Czech author Karel Capek, who also wrote Rossum’s Universal Robots, the play that coined the term “robot,” Insurgo brings us The Insect Play, an entomological revue.

Written in 1921, the play takes a lepidopterist’s view of society, killing it neatly and mounting it without scraping off its identifying marks. The three acts and epilogue function as a parable of life—youth, sex and love in Act 1: “The Butterflies”; family, home and parenthood in Act 2: “Creepers and Crawlers”; nationalism, authority and war in Act 3: “The Ants”; and death in the epilogue. The piece is very much a product of its time, in both its analogies and its construction, and it fails to hit the depths other authors did following the same impetus. Kafka explored the same territory—the crushing absurdity of life and humans as insects—with a lighter and more psychologically real touch. Capek’s work seems thin and screed-like, and as a result, director Brandon McClenahan and the troupe don’t have much to work with.

The Details

The Insect Play
Three stars
From the Calendar
The Insect Play
Through April 25
Thursday-Saturday, 8 p.m.
$15
Onyx Theatre, 732-7225.

For example, in “The Butterflies,” Felix (played by Michael Drake) has a horribly romantic longing for Iris (Katrina Larsen), but she’s entangled with Victor (John Beane). Furthermore, Felix is sought after by Clytie (Cynthia Vodovoz), who’s nominally partnered with Otto (Drew Yonemori). This is enough psychological material for hundreds of plays, let alone one act. But because it’s a moral fable, there’s not much motivation going on for the actors to really, well, act—they’re left to prance and emote and play shallow fools, but the derision of the script bleeds through. It’s hard to feel outrage—either at the playwright and his message, or for the characters themselves—when the message is so transparently bald.

There are times when the skill of the actors brings more life to the material. Sandy Stein, whether hunting butterflies as the Lepidopterist, cross-dressing as Mrs. Beetle or raving as an Inventor, shows great characterization and comedic timing. Tim Burris nearly steals the second act as a suave Ichneumon Fly, who kills all he can for his larvae, while John Beane and Natascha Negro have good chemistry as ant engineers, driving to build a more efficient, world-conquering system. As the Tramp—the audience’s guide through the world of the play—Samuel Francis Craner III has the toughest job. He literally has nothing to do but observe and comment to the audience. There are moments when you feel for his plight, trying to find something worthy in humanity, but he’s not meant to win in this play, so when he doesn’t, it’s hard to feel too much sorrow.

Because I have made a point of this in the past, I should note that this is the most technically assured Insurgo play I’ve seen—Revolution Paint Squadron did a marvelously trippy paint job on the set, Shawn Heckler’s lights are solid and evocative, and John Beane’s costumes (with help from Natascha Negro and Stacia Zinkevich) are inventive and spot-on. Still, the grand catharsis or damnation Capek strove for stays firmly bound in the past, as dry and detached from life as a butterfly behind glass.

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