A brave newt world
War With the Newts is a theatrical adaptation of the satirical novel by Karel Čapek, who is known for popularizing the word "robot" through his play R.U.R. It was adapted by Professor Natsu Onoda Power and performed at Georgetown University.
The play consists of a series of vignettes depicting the events surrounding the uplifting of a species of hyper-intelligent newts. When they are first discovered, they are seen as an able-bodied workforce, but gradually they begin to see how they are being enslaved by humans, and rise up in revolution. The newts were portrayed by actors wearing kigurumi newt suits and fingerless arm-gloves, and they frequently stole the show from the human actors. I had the opportunity to see the play in its world premiere run at Georgetown University. For a new play, this had a remarkable level of polish, while at the same time being eclectic, energetic and engaging.
The eclecticism of the play comes through the variety of vignette styles used. The play begins with the narrator introducing the setting and explaining the importance of cross-species understanding by showing these performances to a combined human-newt audience (he is a newt). The first scene consists of basic historical storytelling, but rapidly evolves to use a variety of perspectives. In particular, two heavily choreographed dance numbers involving the newts making first contact and being used as slave labor provide an interesting narrative break from more literal storytelling. Other fun moments include the following: a musical adaptation portraying the "J.D. Salamander" book about interactions between a famous talking salamander and a zookeeper (musical accompaniment provided by "Newtie and the Blowfish"), a puppet show about the newts' contact with popular culture, and an exclusive interview with a human who was involved in the newt slave trade (originally heard on "Newt Public Radio").
The play even spoofs Georgetown's theater season title "Making New Worlds" as "Making Newt Worlds." This is a must-see for fans of animal-related wordplay.
The energy of the play comes from the actors and the technology utilized. All of the actors had immense energy portraying their newt and human characters. The play frequently had musical interludes that brought the energy up, and the lengthy choreographed scenes were brightened through catchy music and visual effects provided by the Gonda's screen background interface. The puzzle-piece screen setup as the backdrop was utilized to great effect throughout all the scenes. In particular, a business-room scene with a dopey overproduced PowerPoint presentation provided a perfect level of exaggeration for the frequent absurdity of business logic at the expense of common sense morality. There seemed to be a constant push and pull of the technology and the actors, each trying to wrest control of the audience's attention, which makes for an experience that truly deserves multiple views to capture all the subtleties that you missed in your first viewing.
The portrayal of the newts and their struggle for identity provided the emotional grist of the performance and some of the most engaging scenes. In particular, the vignette "Andy and the Zookeeper" begins with a newt learning to read by reading to her zookeeper "10 signs of a good workplace" rather than about the Europe economic crisis. At the end, as she is on her deathbed, he reads back to her "10 ways to declutter your house" rather than news about the impending newt revolution. They discover the importance of their connection, but it is all too late to change the world in which they live. The zookeeper is later seen holding the one meaningful thing left for him in the world: Andy's exhibit sign.
The most intriguing element of the show consists of the dark truth running as an undercurrent throughout the entire performance. While the scenes depict the interactions between humans and newts, all of the actors consistently wear the fingerless arm-gloves of the newt color pattern, regardless of role. The actors on stage are, at their core, newts portraying newts, but also newts portraying humans. There is no space left for humans in this created cultural sphere, which begs this question: how accurate is this historical retrospective when the history has been written by the victors? And what does that say about our own human historical retrospectives?
This play tells you (repeatedly), if you remember nothing else, to remember this: A newt is a salamander, but not all salamanders are newts. A small piece of information, sure, but the crucial first step towards cross-species understanding.