Pass the Roach

Kafka didn't know the half of it: The sentient cockroach Archy (Paul Herwig) and friends in Archy and Mehitabel

I flew to Albany, New York, this past Wednesday--ordinarily an unremarkable statement, but just now anything having to do with airplanes is a little unusual. The flights were near-empty, but otherwise not worth discussing, except to say that as soon as I found my seat, I began a careful inventory of everything nearby that I might potentially fling at an attacker. The seat cushion doubles as a floatation device; might it also double as an anti-terrorist projectile?

I was in New York to work on a play of my own, which again is not worth discussing, except to say that work was constantly interrupted by talk of Manhattan. More particularly, we discussed a crisis now faced by Broadway, where dire reports had emerged all week that show after show was closing its doors, unable to afford to play to empty houses. On Saturday, we were joined by Ron Melrose, who had been the vocal arranger for Jekyll and Hyde on Broadway, and he came with a grim prognosis: "Broadway is crashing and burning," he said.

Following the attacks on the World Trade Center, the tourist-reliant stages of Broadway have become another victim. Box-office receipts are down by 80 percent, Playbill reports. Four shows, The Rocky Horror Show, A Thousand Clowns, Stones in His Pocket, and If You Ever Leave Me, I'm Going With You have already declared that they would soon "shutter," to use show-business jargon. More will follow. There has been less news from the smaller non-Broadway theaters, but none of it has been good. I received an e-mail from local playwright Lisa D'Amour, who had been in Manhattan for the opening of her play Anna Bella Eema, which was to have premiered the following week, and was now canceled, "for a lot of awful reasons," D'Amour wrote, "all directly related to the attack."

I returned to Minneapolis to a headline from the Star Tribune informing me that "Audiences Here Flock to Theater, Music and Comedy Events in Wake of Terror," but the audiences for the two plays I attended on Sunday were miserable--minuscule and dour-visaged and unresponsive. But then, it was Sunday and I had chosen two of the city's smaller plays on a weekend that saw the opening of 17 new productions--perhaps Da at the Guthrie had a more robust house. I will refrain from guessing as to how the events in New York might be affecting Twin Cities theater audiences for a few weeks, but after a weekend of sour theater news, Sunday's mostly empty houses was a melancholy coda, leaving me a little glum.

It's a pity, too, as this is an exciting time for Twin Cities theater: This past week was, essentially, the start of the fall theater season, and of the 17 plays that opened (followed this week by a dozen more), a healthy percentage look to be fine and great fun. Indeed, this weekend saw the opening of the Theater Gallery's Archy and Mehitabel at a newly Patrick-less Patrick's Cabaret, and what a waste if this play gets swallowed up, either by the tragedy of these past few weeks or by the glut of good theater in this town.

The Theater Gallery is akin to the eccentric movement theater of the Twin Cities, reminiscent of the earliest and scrappiest works of the Theatre de la Jeune Lune--and it's no wonder, as the company's co-founder, Paul Herwig, is Jacques LeCoq-trained, like the founders of Jeune Lune. Four of the cast members for Archy, in the meanwhile, have connections to the Margolis Brown Co.--more local movement theater. And the two remaining cast members have long backgrounds in dance: One regularly performs with the No Pants Dancers at the Scrimshaw Brothers' monthly cabaret/variety show. So perhaps we should not be surprised that this production includes a dreamlike street scene in which cockroaches duel each other with tap shoes and a praying mantis prostitutes herself, snapping the heads off her johns after they hand her rumpled ten-dollar bills.

Archy and Mehitabel is based on the jazz-age writings of Don Marquis, who penned a series of short stories about a free-verse-spewing cockroach and a down-on-her-luck alley cat who is convinced that she is the reincarnation of Cleopatra. Marquis's writings are suffused with an alarming sadness. The insects and feral animals that pass through Archy and Mehitabel's world lead short, violent lives punctuated by brief glimpses of ecstatic beauty, and the Theater Gallery's production does an excellent job translating this mood to the stage. Archy, played by Herwig in a battered hobo's coat painted to look like an insect's carapace, ruminates angrily on the sorry lot of insects like him, while Mehitabel (played by Kym Longhi) wanders away from a litter of new kittens, leaving them in an upright garbage can in the hopes that it will rain and her needy, mewling offspring will drown. A collection of transient cockroaches provide the play with its chorus, costuming themselves to take the part of each new character in the script. When Archy visits a cabaret in Europe, they go so far as to deck themselves out in bondage collars and National Socialist brown shirts, dancing salaciously and reading dadaist manifestoes from the likes of Hans Arp. Groaning art-song instrumentation by local composer Marc Doty provides the scene's discordant accompaniment.

Archy, applauding wildly, watches this cockroach cabaret while seated on the floor in front of the audience. At the same time, the cockroach chorus sets up stonily silent cardboard cutouts of additional audience members alongside him. The moment provided, briefly, a sad little metaphor for a cold Sunday of theater. Archy and Mehitabel is a marvelous work, and deserves the vigorous applause Archy provided it. But with my mood still darkened by skittish news from New York, I found it hard to muster such enthusiasm. Me, I was among the cardboard cutouts.

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