Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, July 2001
What a grand experience! Sitting on the lovely lawn of the Park-McCullough House with the (real) fireflies dancing about and the (real) bats swooping gleefully overhead watching the (fake) cockroach and (fake) cricket and (fake) alley cat perform… What? This sounds a tad bizarre to you? Well, I grant you that it is not an everyday occurrence, even in my slightly insane life, but it was an experience I will not soon forget.
The burning question in my mind is, why did it take me so darned long to take the Mettawee River Theatre Company up on the offer of innovative free entertainment? They have been performing out of doors in the summers for many years now and I have duly noted their performances and failed to attend. It took a cockroach to get me out of the house and into the audience.
The word cockroach puts many people off. Having grown up in New York City I have seen many real roaches and I cannot say that I have enjoyed their company. But this is not just any old cockroach, this is archy, in whose tiny exoskeleton dwells the soul of a free-verse poet whose need to communicate is so great that he learns to write by hurling himself headlong on to the keys of the typewriter (the archy pieces were written in the early part of the 20th century when typing did require applying considerable force on the keys – no cushy ergonomic keyboards or even electric typewriters in those days!) Because he could not simultaneously hit the shift key and the desired letter, archy wrote all in lower case and therefore his name is never capitalized.
archy and his pals in the underside of New York City life, were the creation of prolific writer Don Marquis. Although Marquis is not read enough these days, his work, particularly the archy writings, resurface in the public consciousness from time to time. There was a “back alley opera’ called archy and mehitabel recorded by Eddie Bracken and Carol Channing in 1954, which became a 1957 Broadway musical called Shinbone Alley starring Eartha Kitt as Mehitabel, the alley cat who claims she is the reincarnation of Cleopatra (although she is a little vague about the details of that former life). In 1971 Channing reprised her vocal role as Mehitabel in an animated film directed by Mel Brooks, also titled Shinbone Alley.
The Mettawee production Communications from a Cockroach: archy and the Underside is very faithful to the gritty style of Marquis writings. The period of time during which the archy pieces were written traversed World War I, the Roaring ‘20’s, prohibition, the Great Depression, and social unrest centering on human right and labor relations. As an insect, archy lives on the underside of life and views humanity, animals, and insects in all their hidden moments, but Marquis always finds both humor and poignancy in his tales, poems and songs.
The show you will see is a puppet show, but the puppeteers are in full view of the audience and their facial expressions and movements are as integral to the performance as the puppet on their hands. The puppets themselves, designed and created by the legendary Ralph Lee, are charming and realistic imaginings of Marquis’ characters that stay far away from the famous original illustrations by George Herriman, of Krazy Kat fame. I say that the insect puppets are realistic, and they are, but they are also appealing and vaguely cartoonish. You will not find yourself face-to-face with a giant cockroach for 90 minutes.
Tom Marion is a perfect archy, but this is an ensemble piece, not a star turn. Marion would be nothing without fellow performers Margi Sharp, Sam Zuckerman, and George Drance. Also an integral part of the show are the cool jazz score by Neal Kirkwood, ably performed by Laura Friedman and Bruce Huron who are in full view at all times. The sets and puppets are clever and inventive. The melodrama performed entirely by beds (yes, that’s right, beds) and the scene in which archy terrifies a Long Island couple asleep in their bed are particularly fine examples of Lee’s skill and craft.
The performance I attended was enjoyed by a crowd ranging in age from birth to the golden years. My son Brandon and his pre-teen pals loved it. This is not your average evening at the theatre. It is more inspiring, entertaining, thought provoking, and a lot cheaper!
The Mettawee River Theatre Company (518-854-9357) has several free outdoor performances of this show scheduled around the region through early August. Check their Web site for a full listing. Communications from a Cockroach runs just under 90 minutes with no intermission. There is some very mild cussing, some discussion of alcoholic beverages, and a duel to the death between a rat and a tarantula which might be upsetting to very small children, but otherwise this show is suitable for all ages.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2001