The Salon at 45 Bleecker
New York, NY
June 24, 2000
review by Donald Devet
In spite of the amusing characters and a few comedic turns this is a dark story, especially for children.
Does this story sound familiar? A “youthful character” sets out on a journey to discover his true talents and his role in society. Through a series of adventures he ends up learning who he is by saving his society from destruction. The “youthful character” also happens to be an insect. Is it “A Bug’s Life” or “Antz?” No, it’s “The Adventures of Maya the Bee,” a 1912 European children’s classic by Waldemar Bonsel that has been transformed into a puppet show deftly directed by Will Pomerantz. What makes this particular story unusual is the fact that the “youthful character” is female.. Another refreshing twist is that it has been adapted by Nancy Harrow as a jazz musical.
Ms. Harrow is an experienced jazz singer/composer with twelve CDs to her credit. But this is her first attempt at writing for children’s theater. Maybe that’s why this show has a very adult feel. The twenty or more songs take their time and are witty in an adult sort of way, maybe too witty for the toddler set. In this particular performance, the adults were enjoying the clever lyrics, but the youngest children were occasionally squirming or talking. The marriage of jazz and puppets is a great idea. And introducing jazz to children at an early age is even better. But the pacing of the songs and the story line itself might be a source of a few problems.
Maya is one small cog in a giant hive. She learns from the beginning that she was born to serve the Queen Bee. In the big scheme of things her life means very little. But Maya is too independent and curious to swallow this philosophy. She leaves the protection of the hive to go on a Wizard of Oz type journey. Along the way she meets a slew of eclectic characters- Peter the Rose Beetle, Bobbie the Dung Beetle, Miss Loveydear the Dragonfly, Thomas the Centipede, Effie the Cricket, Thekla the Spider and more. Each bug is given a moment to shine with a song. Here’s where the show started to lose momentum and become predictable. Every song has similar pacing. The staging and blocking were inventive but not enough to distract us from the “another character, another song” routine.
From these characters Maya quickly learns that this is a “bug eat bug world.” To reinforce this truth she is soon captured by a scary spider and nearly ends up bee du jour. Fortunately, a resourceful Dung Beetle comes to her rescue. The children in the audience clapped. But this was not the end of her adventures. Maya is also captured by the militaristic hornets. She manages to escape and return to the hive in time to warn the Queen of an impending hornet invasion. The bees defend themselves, vanquishing the hornets.The hive (society) is saved and Maya is recognized as a hero (heroine?).
The songs are prerecorded but the speaking voices are “live.” Two actors with scripts in hand perform over twenty character voices. They sit behind the audience and watch the rod puppets being manipulated by three puppeteers on rolling stools. Even though the actors were miked and their voices projected from speakers on either side of the stage, it was disconcerting to also hear the characters’ voices coming from behind. The lights illuminating the actors’ scripts were another distraction especially when the lighting on stage was low. The bright lights from the back of the house caused some of the audience to miss action on stage in favor of watching the actors do voice characterizations.
The puppets designed and constructed by Zofia Czechlewska are full of eye popping character and attitude. The scale of their bodies and the choice of textures and costume make these bugs unique. The mechanics of eyes blinking, wings fluttering and centipede legs dancing are an added delight. The puppeteers work in perfect harmony to bring all this wire and fabric to life.
There’s more to “Maya the Bee” than meets the eye. In spite of the amusing characters and a few comedic turns this is a dark story, especially for children. The message is clear. The world is harsh. There is much beauty but there is also much danger. Life is short, so make the most of it.