McKay's Bees | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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MCKAY'S BEES

Griffin Theatre Company

Forgive the pun, but Griffin Theatre's production of McKay's Bees is the sort of show that really bugs me. Not because it's bad. Far from it. But because it comes so close to being really, really good. If sheer ambition were the secret to theatrical success, Griffin would be heading out to Broadway. Unfortunately they remain on Clark Street, and their execution of this play rarely lives up to its promise.

Adapted by Griffin's William Massolia from Thomas McMahon's 1979 novel, McKay's Bees survives its first hour on the go-for-the-gusto enthusiasm of Griffin's 17-member ensemble and the strength of McMahon's cleverness and creativity. After a shaky opening song, penned by ensemble member Jamie Denton and sung off-key by four of the actors, the play plunges into the quirky story of 19th-century visionary/crackpot Gordon McKay, who scoots out of Boston and moves to Kansas with his wife, Catherine, and her engineer brother Collin in order to forge a society based on the model of the beehive.

A sort of pacifist Karl Marx with an entomological slant, McKay envisions a utopian city called Equilibrium composed primarily, one might assume, of workers, queens, and drones. It isn't long before McKay comes to realize that lessons learned by observing bees aren't easily applied to humans. The journey west is fraught with danger, involving marauding thugs and alligators, and upon arriving in Kansas the three are plunked down in the midst of violent conflicts between supporters of slavery and abolitionists. Unable to jump right into his plans, Gordon opens up a hotel in Lawrence where many seemingly divergent stories begin to intersect.

Catherine befriends Genevieve Thayer, a petulant young mother whose husband Eli incurs the wrath of proslavers by fighting for the freedom of Genevieve's former slave, Joseph. McKay's bees begin to die off. Collin seeks the help of the wheelchair-ridden bee expert Bernadette Blennerhassett, with whom he falls in love, inviting her to travel with him in the hot-air balloon he's built. The lot of the bees does not improve, and Kansas society begins to crumble along with McKay's hives. Gordon journeys back to Boston with his assistant, naturalist and riverboat captain William Sewall, to seek advice from noted bee author Michael Langstroth. We learn that the only way to rescue the bees is to burn their hives--which is exactly what happens to Lawrence when border ruffians lay waste to the town. At the end there's a sense of renewal, of a new society being born out of the ashes of the old one, perhaps for the bees as well as for America.

There's a lot going on in McKay's Bees. McMahon's novel manages to gracefully combine the process of westward expansion, the publication of Darwin's The Origin of Species, and the rise of antislavery sentiment into an entertaining history lesson, drawing parallels between the evolution of our society and the evolution of our understanding of nature. McMahon seems to suggest that as our geographical boundaries expanded so did our mental horizons, and our ability to perceive the evolutionary process in nature enabled us to have a more egalitarian vision of society. Though we see great hardship onstage, the end offers the hope that this struggle is a necessary step in an evolution toward a society where equilibrium can indeed exist.

Surprisingly, despite all McMahon's wonderful confusion and dizzying complexity, Massolia's adaptation and Richard Barletta's staging are rather lifeless. Throughout, the pacing seems off. The first act is choppily structured, hampered by Massolia's tendency to end scenes with a cute blackout line rather than a natural conclusion. The second act is sluggish and talky: a lot of the intriguing action happens offstage. Instead of trying to mirror McMahon's inventiveness by coming up with creative ways to depict a hot-air balloon escape, violent skirmishes, and so forth, Massolia just describes them, hoping conversation and sound effects will do the job.

The focus of the play is vague. Obviously Massolia had a monster of a task on his hands when he chose to adapt it, but he bounces around from story to story without making any of them seem higher priority than any other. This should be McKay's tale, but every new scene seems to have a new protagonist. Massolia goes off on too many tangents, presenting a scene with ineffectual president Franklin Pierce at one point, interrupting the plot with a hoedown sequence at another. It seems he's trying to do too much. Somewhere in this novel there lurks a brilliant play, with idiosyncratic characters and truly intriguing adventures, but it's not the one Griffin's performing.

Barletta's direction is respectful where it should be innovative. Though there are some great performances here--Christopher Gerson's dignified but wet-behind-the-ears Collin and Warren Davis's hilariously eccentric Sewall leap immediately to mind--the staging is straightforward and dull. Having characters freeze when others are talking is not an acceptable solution to focusing the audience's attention. Also the play lacks a sense of rhythm: it lurches along from scene to scene, not allowing the actors to find the appropriate rhythms within scenes. When violence and tragedy erupt onstage, the actors' reactions seem implausibly understated.

Barletta seems to be going for something like Steppenwolf's Grapes of Wrath, complete with original twangy American music, period costumes, and reader's-theater-style speeches addressed to the audience, but this play could have profited from a less geriatric approach. It's too bad. McKay's Bees deserves better.

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