Los Angeles Theater Review: COLONY COLLAPSE (The Theatre @ Boston Court in Pasadena)

by Tony Frankel on March 3, 2016

in Theater-Los Angeles

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THERE WILL BE BUZZ ABOUT THIS PLAY,
BUT IT’S ALL STING AND NO HONEY

As honey bees gather pollen and nectar for their survival, they pollinate crops such as cranberries, melons and broccoli. “A World Without Bees,” Time’s cover story in August of 2013, brought to light a frightening occurrence: In recent years, there have been mass deaths of honeybees around the globe. Scientists, who have named the strange disappearance “Colony Collapse Disorder,” are surmising the reasons (agricultural pesticides, parasitic mites, bacterial and HIV-like diseases) but they’ve yet to figure it out. The cause for alarm has less to do with running out of honey and more to do with the myriad of foods dependent on the tiny pollinators. While many crops are only partially dependent on bee pollination, others, like the almond, cannot get by without it.

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There’s a helplessness associated with the inability to end this pernicious situation. It seems tied with climate change and the effect of human consumption and overpopulation, although science has yet to point in that direction. Can it ever really be explained? Is it just evolution in progress? Can we learn to live without crops such as blueberries and cherries?

COLONY COLLAPSE at Boston Court - photo by Ed Krieger.

There’s also a helplessness watching characters grapple with protecting their children — and themselves — in Stefanie Zadravec’s highly disturbing Colony Collapse. Mark, an ex-con who is putting his life back together, has recently taken over a farm from fellow AA members with his new wife Julia. Both are nascent farmers and recovering alcoholics, so while the rural Oregon countryside is doing them good, the overworked and financially burdened couple is stressed. At stake is an apple orchard which desperately needs more bees for pollination, and Mark is willing to buy hives at an exorbitant fee, but the skilled beekeeper he needs is unavailable at present. In addition, a local teenage girl has gone missing and the area is on high alert.

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Into this combustible mix enters Mark’s son Jason, an older teen who is trying to escape from a brutal existence living with his methhead mom, Nicky. Jason needs a place to crash while he figures out what’s next. While Julia’s maternal instincts kick in, Mark, for reasons we will learn later, wants his son gone. Pronto.

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The scenes between these four characters — Mark, Julia, Jason and Nicky — positively crackle with tension, astute character-driven dialogue, and realistic conflict. And when a sheriff and an officer show up later in this 150-minute two-act drama, the fear is so palpable that I want to round up everyone I know to see how powerful theater can be.

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But as with director Jessica Kubansky’s previous effort at Boston Court, Everything You Touch, the meta-theatrical devices, mainly a Greek Chorus, not only detract from the drama, they deflate the triumph of the rich characters and riveting scenes. While the caliber of acting and rich dialogue from the four main characters are highly recommended, the stilted dialogue assigned to a chorus of parents who have had teens strangely disappear from their lives is a downer. Between the overwritten ping-pong lines and these actors struggling to make this material somehow relevant, offering the strangest wooden delivery, the first 10 minutes of the play were grating at best.

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Plus, there’s The Girl who has been kidnapped; she addresses us directly to explain things like evolution and the bad things that happen in life. Jason hears her voice in his head. While this Girl is one meta aspect of the show that (eventually) works, the chorus is a trick that burgeoning playwright Zadravec doesn’t need. (And we certainly don’t need these voices from beyond reminding us to “breathe.”) She should trust that her astute dialogue, which crescendos like musical notes to shattering codas, doesn’t need anything more to make her point, which seems to be both the rising inability of parents to watch their children and humans to save the planet they are quickly destroying. This is precisely the conversation we need to have but one that theater avoids. Had Zadravec stuck to her story, Colony Collapse would have been as exhilarating as any of the great dramas dealing with parental tragic flaws and the inability to protect a child —  think I Never Sang for My Father and All My Sons.

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Kubzansky brings her usual directorial flair to the metaphysical deconstructionist nature of the script: The Girl hovers uncannily over our heads at one point on a metal grid, and the chorus uses flashlights with a Spielbergian flourish. Karyn Lawrence’s continual light shifts raise the stakes, and Susan Gratch’s set — a skeletal house frame upstage with side curtains hanging down like Spanish Moss — add to the ethereal nature.

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The real magic occurs when captivating dialogue meets the spellbinding acting of Chris Conner as Mark, Riley Neldam as Jason and especially Paula Christensen as Nicky, whose meth-addicted mom at the end of her rope is simply one of the best performances on stage right now. Sally Hughes is well-cast as Julia, but she lacks the truly internalized desperation of a woman trying to make and keep the peace. The chorus is Jully Lee, Julie Cardia, Tracey A. Leigh, Leandro Cano, and Adrian Gonzalez, who offers fine support as a cool-headed but passive-aggressive Sheriff. Emily James delivers well as The Girl, but lacks a distinctive take to make what is essentially a disembodied voice more interesting.

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At play’s end I was hyped by the great stuff but depleted, dejected, saddened, upset, and mad for the missed opportunity. And there were simply too many issues buzzing around this hive. Dysfunctional families, alcoholism, prostitution, murder, kidnappings, thievery and deception are all fine (just ask Tennessee Williams), but when the irritating chorus and a no-win denouement are added to the mix, that’s when hopelessness sets in. I had to keep telling myself to “breathe” but it just didn’t work.

Lately, World Premieres like this get frozen for some reason. I would love to see where this play goes if all the superfluousness is excised and we get the simple but painful story of lost people trying to make and keep a connected family in a world that seems to be slipping through their fingers.

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photos by Ed Krieger

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prod12Colony Collapse
The Theatre @ Boston Court
Boston Court Performing Arts Center
70 North Mentor Ave in Pasadena
Thurs-Sat at 8; Sun at 2
ends on March 20, 2016
for tickets, call 626.683.6883
or visit Boston Court

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