Maybe it’s the changing weather patterns that have increased my animal awareness of what the sky is doing, but a couple of Sundays ago I did cast a reluctant farewell glance at the soft and clear blue afternoon sky as I ducked into the Exit on Taylor for Josef and Karel Capek’s The Insect Play, the last of Cutting Ball Theater’s Hidden Classics readings for this season. Years ago I read Karel Capek’s fabulous novel War with the Newts. He also wrote several plays, some in collaboration with his brother Josef, including one that Janacek used as the basis for his great opera The Makropulos Case and one (R.U.R.) that gave us the word “robot.” So you can see the Capeks tend towards the Aesopian, the fantastic, the science-fictiony-satirical.
It was worth giving up a Sunday afternoon for The Insect Play, which is funny and beautiful and frightening. It starts with a drunken vagrant, who has clearly seen better days and a higher station, staggering in a wood where he runs into a Professor of Entomology (one little quibble here about the translation: at one point it has the Professor say “laying” when he should say “lying”; our contemporary standards for professors are no doubt lower than in early-twentieth century Prague, but it still jarred on my ear). The Vagrant then nods off and finds himself part of the insect world.
There are three segments exploring that world, sort of like the Divine Comedy in reverse, though even the paradise we start with isn’t exactly blessed. We are among the gilded fluttering butterflies, all of them scheming lovers or desperate poets. This is a very funny segment, full of elegant high-society bitchery and romantic maneuvering. The earnest poet butterfly is desperately in love, but mostly for the sake of producing poetry out of his manufactured anguish, much to the irritation of the female butterfly who is trying to entice him before she gets too old. (Her helpful friends keep up a stream of kindly comments on her age.) He goes from producing sort-of-Swinburne verse to a bold new style that is sort-of-Futurist. He’s thrilled, even if the other butterflies aren’t.
We go lower from this light world in the second segment, which is down among the middle- and working-class beetles, crickets, and flies, along with a chrysalis who keeps announcing vibrantly that she is “about to be born!” There are marital squabbles, lots of bickering about homes and possessions (especially the precious ball of dung the beetles have spent their lives accumulating), a world of constant struggle often ending in arbitrary death. The Vagrant observes these worlds and comments on them but is mostly outside of them, as he is of the human world.
The second realm, darker than the first but still funny, gives way to the inferno of the ants, a mechanized, corporate and militaristic world, which is horrifyingly funny in a dark way that kills the laughter in your throat as you watch the ants mindlessly marching to arbitrary orders inspired by slogans about the nation and God’s will that are still all too familiar.
During the second or third act, as I saw the play steadily getting darker and more horrifying, I started to think that the Capeks were going to have trouble ending it: ending with the ants would be utterly nihilistic, and also would leave the Vagrant’s story unfinished (kind of like the Christopher Sly prologue in The Taming of the Shrew). Anytime you cover as wide a territory as this play covers, there’s the urge to sum up something about life, its astonishing beauty and its often pointless suffering, which means, realistically, you’re often just rearranging banalities – sentiments that are banal because we all feel them to be so obviously true and significant. Sure enough, the epilogue runs on way too long; there were several points where I thought “now is obviously the perfect ending” only to get a new series of “ah, birth!/oh, death!” conversations, which are diluted through repetition (though perhaps the endless repetition of these basic moments of life is really the point after all). I would have regretted the loss of the Samuel-Beckettish snails, but trimming would have helped the epilogue, in my opinion.
But that’s a minor quibble. I was thrilled to discover a wonderful play I had never heard of, which is kind of the point of the Hidden Classics series. I can’t believe this play isn’t staged more often – it must be an incredibly fun play to design. As I watched it I kept thinking that it would make a terrific opera, something along the lines of The Cunning Little Vixen, with the different worlds offering the composer the opportunity to display so many different colors and moods.
The large cast was really good. B. Warden Lawlor was the Vagrant but the other actors, who generally played several parts, weren’t identified by role in the playbill, so here’s the mass ensemble: Molly Benson, Derek Fischer, Myron Freedman, Dimas Guardado, Paul Jennings, Damian Lanahan-Kalish, Sam Leichter, Annamaria Macleod, Sarah Moser, Chris Quintos, Paul Stout, Trish Tillman, Nathan Tucker, and Addie Ulrey. Bennet Fisher directed, obviously successfully.