Odd and wondrous things are occurring underground at the Loretto-Hilton Center, where The Insect Play, the 1922 political satire by Karel and Josef Capek, has taken root in the Studio Theatre. During the course of 90 peculiar minutes, high-stakes dramas involving some of man's most basic and timeless needs — sex, materialism, conquest — play out between blades of grass. Crickets, beetles, ants and slugs take center stage in an allegory that, though written in the lingering shadows of World War I, continues to resonate and amuse. You might well leave the theater wondering how two Czechoslovakian brothers writing nearly a century ago could understand contemporary America so acutely. It may be that translator-adaptors Peter Majer and Cathy Porter have updated the script to underscore its parallels to recent unhappy events. But whoever is responsible, the play provides a potent reminder of the struggles that ensue whenever lunacy trumps common sense.
The staging by the Webster University Conservatory of Theatre Arts is exemplary. Director Jef Awada, who is primarily a movement director, plays to his strengths and keeps the show flitting, crawling and hopping throughout. The scenic design by Katie Stepanek, fulsomely lit by Nathan Scheuer, is both otherworldly and, by evening's end, hilariously functional. The costumes from the supremely gifted Aryna Petrashenko are wondrous to behold — primarily because, for the most part, they don't call attention to themselves. The Insect Play is not a treatise about clever garb; it's a tale in which the costumes should enhance the show's fantastical manner. Here, they do.
According to the playbill, the setting is "our backyard, today." A glorified bum named the Traveler stumbles into the grass and discovers this microcosm of his own world. As the incredulous Traveler, Kyle Acheson's clarity of delivery sets a standard for the entire production. Thirteen actors portray multiple insects. Although all are entertaining, Kelly Nienaltowski's ravenous larva deserves special praise. Last year in the conservatory's effervescent staging of On the Razzle, Nienaltowski was a memorable horse. She apparently has a knack for non-humans.
Although the opening sequence about the mating habits of butterflies overstays its welcome, the pace quickens as the stakes heighten, and eventually the stage is strewn with more bodies than at the end of Hamlet. Yet when a chrysalis, birthing in its cocoon, wondrously proclaims, "I am to be born into the world," the play's cynicism is put on hold — at least until the next outrage. As the audience is drawn ever more into the evening's quirky thrall, viewers might even find a double meaning in the assurance of a warring ant who propagandizes that "everything is going according to plan." If the brothers Capek intended that we leave our own dog-eat-dog existence long enough to see ourselves reflected in a larva-eat-cricket world, then their plan continues to both provoke and entertain.