Sandbox Theatre's hauntingly original, ensemble-created piece adapts Karel Capek's 1936 novel, in which an enterprising sea captain comes across a race of semi-intelligent amphibians who prove adept first at harvesting pearls, then at producing armaments and explosives, which eventually leads to the ruination of humanity and the submergence of the earth's surface under water. No, really. The cast is dressed in black robes and white face paint, and they move about with slinky synchrony as the hollow-eyed newts. They begin the evening croaking for water, and later riff on humanity's greed for wealth and power. Ryan Hill dons a Noh-inspired mask as Captain von Toch, a roaring and rapacious capitalist who kicks off the ruthless exploitation of the "sea demons." Things go swimmingly until the global pearl market bottoms out, by which time the newts have undergone a population explosion that renders their relationship with humanity ambiguous indeed. There's a side story about a movie starlet named Lily Valley (Julia Fairbanks) and her jock star beau Baseball Fred (Nathan Surprenant) that further illustrates the innate rottenness of people. All the while the actors don and doff masks as needed to morph between the newts and the people who generally treat them very badly. A captured newt, Andy Scheuchzer (Nicole Devereaux), provides further illustration. Devereaux goes all goggle-eyed and pliant, adopting a deep, suitably inhuman voice as a newt that develops the power of speech and eventually spends his days immersed in the newspaper, absorbed in stories for which he has no understanding or context. A period follows in which the newts are used as sideshow freaks, then auctioned off as slave labor and subjected to cruel medical experiments. The newts' worries end, though, when the commanding Chief Salamander (Derek Miller) begins dictating terms to the world's great nations, eventually drowning us all and conquering the earth. The work thrives on both the strength of ensemble cohesion and individual performances (Devereaux's voice still echoes in my head a day later), and while it isn't always an easy ride, this War bristles with adventure and invention. If we ever do find real-life intelligent newts, best buy a scuba mask.
WAR WITH THE NEWTS Sandbox Theatre; at the Red Eye through November 17 612.554.1302