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Sandbox Returns to War with the Newts

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In 2007, the experimental Sandbox Theatre had one of its most successful shows the with fiery science-fiction fable War with the Newts. "Still, there has always been a nagging feeling that it bottomed out at a certain point," says director Peter Heeringa.

The company tackles the work again with a fresh version of the play that opens Friday on Park Square's Andy Boss stage. It is the first work in a three-year cycle of shows for Sandbox at the St. Paul theater.

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War with the Newts is different than most Sandbox shows. Typically, the whole production is built from the ground up by the company, from initial concept through creation and then production. This time out, Ryan Hill's script was already in place.

"In the traditional theater process, the actors come into the room with a script and a director who has a vision, and everyone moves to that plan. For us, it is far less hierarchical. We started out with a script, but it was not a sacred script. There was still a lot of play and a lot of adjustments made to make things work," Heeringa says.

Some changes from 2007 to now were necessitated by changes in the cast. The original company featured 14 members. This production has seven. Along with creating all of the different characters, the actors also have to create the musical soundscape live. "They are rotating out and wearing a lot of different hats," Heeringa says. "We have a group with the right skills to tackle that."

War with the Newts is based on a 1936 novel by Karel Čapek. The Czech author was an early science-fiction adopter -- his play R.U.R. gave us the term "robot" -- and he uses the fantastical plot to explore issues of capitalism and exploitation. In the story, a race of intelligent newts is found on a South Pacific island. Humanity does what it does best: exploits the newly found creatures, until they fight back.

"It's real seductive material," Heeringa says. "With the original novel, Capek is kind of all over the place with weaving together source materials, along with human issues.... In the big picture, it was written at the beginning of the 1930s, with the lost generation of World War I and the tense lead-up to World War II."

Part of the nagging feelings from the first production had to do with the last part of the book -- and the show. Capek moves a very in-the-moment, personal narrative to one that has considerable distance. "There are all these reports and newspaper clippings. It's like going through a trunk and piecing together what happened. It works well it the book, but it doesn't translate to a theatrical experience," Heeringa says.

The company hopes to have found a stronger solution the second time around. This revisit also gave everyone more time. "The first time around, we didn't have enough time to dig into as much as we would have liked," Heeringa says.

IF YOU GO:

War with the Newts Through May 30 Park Square Theatre 20 W. Seventh Place, St. Paul $25 For tickets and more information, call 651-291-7005 or visit online.