The Theatre @ Boston Court’s production of Stefanie Zadravec’s Colony Collapse creates a strong sense of place, time and action even before a word is spoken. Barely audible pre-show forest sounds give way to foreboding music, then yields to a cacophony of voices and the intrusive noise of a hovering helicopter as a brilliant searchlight sweeps the stage and audience. A tense few hours of grief and conflict ensue as a variety of characters deal with some of the curses of these modern times – the disappearance of children, the desperation and disruption of addiction, poverty, prison, and broken families – alleviated by precious few moments of tense comic relief. It is instructive in the same way as Greek tragedy, and emulates that tradition with a chorus of anguished parents whose children have gone missing. In its existential angst, Colony Collapse calls to mind the searing family drama of Eugene O’Neill.
The chorus gives way to the principals, an ex-convict husband, Mark (Chris Conner) and his recovering addict wife, Julia (Sally Hughes), who are trying to make a go of it on an orchard farm in rural Oregon. Their precarious balance is upset by the arrival of Jason (Riley Neldham), Mark’s teenaged son by ex-wife Nicky (Paula Christensen), a jittery meth-head who turns tricks to pay the rent. The boy’s arrival tips over a witch’s brew of bottled up emotional turmoil all of which is played out as helicopters, police and locals search in vain for a vanished teen-aged girl. Voices raised in anger or despair abound.
The production is highly theatrical with the chorus serving in many capacities, such as handing props to the principals or adjusting the set much in the style of the kuroko, the black-clad stagehands of Japanese theatre. Choreographed searches are carried out by the chorus (Jully Lee, Adrian Gonzalez, Julia Cardia, Tracey A. Leigh and Leandro Cano) with powerful flashlights accompanied by the hovering chopper.
And then there is the ethereal character of the The Girl (Emily James), the missing fifteen-year-old. She is a sprite, like Puck, who appears from time to time and cheerfully talks to the audience about the insignificance of human life in the face of the unimaginable vastness of the universe. She also climbs down from the flies to converse with a stoned Jason and she giddily lectures the audience from high above its collective heads lying flat on a wire mesh grid.
The title, Colony Collapse, refers to the plight of the honeybees whose very existence is imperiled, according to the EPA, by an unexplained phenomenon that occurs when a majority of worker bees in a colony disappear and leave behind a queen. “The disorder affects the adult bees’ ability to navigate and is the result of a lack of healthy adult bees inside the hive (Zadravec).” Colony collapse is, of course, a metaphor that becomes concrete at the climax. The playwright has packed a lot in this lengthy drama stylistically, thematically and emotionally, so much so that it seems at times unfocussed.
The excellence of the cast, however, is undeniable and they are eminently watchable. It may be unfair to single a few individuals in this ensemble piece, but Riley Neldam is exceptional as young Jason. Paula Christensen is over-the-top terrific as the desperate mercurial junkie, Nicky. And Emily James as The Girl, although a spirit, is a concrete, engaging presence, who cheerfully and clearheadedly accepts the witless cruelty of the universe.
Colony Collapse, which was commissioned by The Oregon Shakespeare Festival, is directed by Jessica Kubzansky and choreographed by Kitty McNamee. Scenic design is by Susan Gratch with lighting by Karyn Lawrence. John Nobori created the sound design and music and costumes are by Garry Lennon.
Colony Collapse runs through March 20 at The Theatre @ Boston Court.