Review: ‘A Strange Disappearance of Bees’ Has Critics Buzzing With Excitement

(l to r) Jenny Strassburg and Melissa Hurst in "A Strange Disappearance of Bees" at Oldcastle Theaetre Company.

(l to r) Jenny Strassburg and Melissa Hurst in “A Strange Disappearance of Bees” at Oldcastle Theaetre Company.

Review: “A Strange Disappearance of Bees” at Oldcastle Theatre Company, Bennington, Vermont
by Gail M. Burns and Larry Murray

Gail M. Burns: Without question, A Strange Disappearance of Bees has to be one of the best original plays I’ve seen in a long time. By “original” I mean conceived wholly from the mind of the playwright – we see lots of adaptations, translations, and historical or biographical plays, but this one is a new creation.

Larry Murray: It’s been years since a new play came out of the blue and knocked my over like a stroke of theatrical lightning.

Gail: For starters, it is clearly plotted and truly moving and engaging. These are good but imperfect people – just like you and me – and through the course of the play we come to care about them and understand why they make the choices they do.

Larry: Elena Hartwell, whom we had the pleasure of meeting – almost by accident – in the lobby before the performance began is the sort of person you just naturally fall into a conversation with. And her play is peopled with uncomplicated characters who you just can’t help liking.

Gail: The production is perfectly cast by director Eric Peterson. The five actors – three men and two women – each have a distinct look that is appropriate to their character. And they are all fine actors.

Larry: Before commenting on the show itself I continue to be amazed by how cleverly they have created their new theatre space. One of the wonders of the new Oldcastle Theatre in downtown Bennington, Vermont is its total flexibility. The first production we saw there, Northern Boulevard, had a seating set-up that made the stage sort of panoramic, while the second found the playing space more rounded, perfect for Around the World in 80 Days.

For this play they have created a three-quarter-round, bringing the actors even closer to the audience, as if we are sitting at the next table in the coffee shop. The set design by Wm. John Aupperlee was welcoming, with 40-50 jars of rich dark honey sitting on shelves upstage, along with the food and coffee stations, and then half a dozen tables leading downstage strewn about so that conversations could happen anywhere, anytime in this two act play. I especially liked the frosted transoms in midair over the vomitoria (passageways) between the playing space and the audience. There was a fourth wall, but it dissolved once the play way underway.

Gail: I loved the look of the set – spare and evocative, but not specific of time or place. We are never told what city and state we’re in, other than that it is far away from the Pacific Northwest. And I never did really manage to create an accurate chronology for the play’s action.

Lissa (Jenny Strassburg) and Robert (Simon Yokoyama).

Lissa (Jenny Strassburg) and Robert (Simon Yokoyama).

Larry: The program notes that the play takes place in multiple times and the “present” is a few years ago. While all the characters have fascinating life stories to tell, it is Lissa (Jenny Strassburg) whose story we follow most closely. Her two suitors Callum (Loren Dunn) and Robert (Simon Yokoyama) are as different as two guys can be, and through the course of the play we come to like both of them as much as Lissa and the two adult figures, Rud (the Beekeeper, played by Melissa Hurst) and Cashman, the Vietnam Vet (Michael D. Nichols.) All five are members of Actors Equity, and the miracle we see on the Oldcastle stage is how magnificently five actors who love their material can become more than an ensemble, but a family that interconnects on multiple levels on stage.

Bees enables its actors to transcend their own skins and inhabit those of the story. Seeing that happen touched something in me, many times during the show, a response that shared the joys and tears on stage as the story unfolded. When Cashman revealed his prognosis from having been exposed to Agent Orange, or pregnancy and the possibility of abortion entered the discussion, those of us in the audience hung on every word, the situations were so real, the decisions so hard, we were all one family.

Gail: There is a bit of a cliff hanger at the end, which works especially well because you really could be happy for the characters which ever way it goes. There is no “villian” and no “hero” and no “happily ever after.”

Larry: As director Eric Peterson noted before the show, Elena Hartwell is far from a new playwright, and is making her presence known in many theatres across the country as she pursues her work. There were rewrites during the rehearsals in Bennington, and it appears that her fearlessness in honing and sharpening the script has worked. Every word works to advance the story or deepen the characters.

Gail: We’ve mentioned the honey, but not the bees. You will be glad to hear that the theatre is Bee Free (I have been known to leap up shrieking when accosted by one, and that is more annoying than an unwanted cell phone call in a theatre) but the little insects feature heavily in the plot. Callum and Rud both keep bees. Lissa sells their honey and uses it in her baked goods.

Cashamn (Michael D.Nochols and Rud (Melissa Hurst).

Cashamn (Michael D.Nochols and Rud (Melissa Hurst).

Cashman is allergic to bee stings. But as most people know, honeybees have beeen disappearing in large numbers in recent years. Not dying, mind you, disappearing. We don’t really know why, but its called CCD (Colony Collapse Disorder) and it is a very real threat to life on earth. [Colony Collapse Disorder].

Hartwell has Rud give brief lectures on apiculture and bee biology, and that character’s bees do suffer from CCD during the course of the play, but the creatures “disappearing” in this play are humans. Some relocate, and some die, which is the greatest and most mysterious disappearance of all. Hartwell begins her story with a surprising reappearance of a person no one is expecting, and he in turn discovers that the person he has come to find has “disappeared.” The smooth shifts in time as the story is told help us see the profound influence the appearance, disappearance, and reappearance of people has on these characters’ lives .

Larry: This is a world class production, the most memorable play I have seen since the original Orphans at Steppenwolf in Chicago in 1985. Yes, you read that right, the best play I have seen in 25 years. And there is a Los Angeles production of Bees already in the making at the Collaborative Artists Ensemble in October, and this is the sort of human interest story that capture the interest of both Broadway and filmmakers. It plays at Oldcastle through June 2 and I would not hesitate to tell everyone I know that if you are particular about the theatre you see, this is a play that is worth the drive.

With more than five dozen plays on our Summer calendar, is it possible that we have just seen the best one of the summer?

Gail: Certainly our best new and original play, yes. Two hours of honest and engaging theatre beautifully acted on the perfect set (well, except for that door the wouldn’t stay closed, but I bet someone next door at Greenberg’s can set that straight!) What a wonderful start to the summer of 2013!

Oldcastle Theatre Company presents A Strange Disappearance of Bees by Elena Hartwell, Directed by Eric Peterson, Set Dessign by Wm. John Aupperlee, Costume Design by Liz Stott, Lighting Design by David V. Groupe, Stage Manager: Sophie Garder, Assistant Stage Manager: Richard Howe. Cast: Rud (the Beekeeper) – Melissa Hurst; Lissa – Jenny Strassburg; Callum – Loren Dunn; Robert – Simon Yokoyama; Cashman – Michael D. Nichols. About two hours including one ten minute intermission. May 17 – June 2, 2013 at the Oldcastle Theatre Company,331 Main Street, Bennington, Vermont. 802-447-0564.

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