War With the Newts

by John Stoltenberg

When an actor comes on stage and tells you to silence your cell phone, etc., then identifies himself as a newt, you might be a bit perplexed. And when, further, he announces that all the humans you’ll see on stage will be played by newts too, you might suppose you’re in for a surprise. And that you are—for the world premiere of War With the Newts at Georgetown University is more wondrous strange than anyone can imagine.

Anyone, that is, except Natsu Onoda Power, who adapted the script from The War With the Newts—a 1936 satirical novel by Czech author Karel Čapek—and directed a multimedia spectacle as tickling and ingenious as can be.

The theatrical winking is nonstop.

First, the cute newts. They dance about in orange stocking feet wearing fingerless brown mittens and baggy brown onesies with a long thick tail attached. At some point, the entire ensemble shows up thus garbed.

Then, sure enough as promised, some of the the newts don human clothes to tell their tale, which pretty much follows Čapek’s plot, except it’s presented as a dazzling amalgam of projections, music, sound and light effects, dance, song, puppets, and silly sketch comedy.

The gist of Čapek’s novel is a pessimistic political allegory about economic exploitation, oppression, and worker revolt—plus a list of isms including capitalism, colonialism, fascism, and racism. It was written in the run-up to the Third Reich.

In the novel European humans, eager to grab wealth by harvesting pearls, seek a new source in the sea for these mollusk-created baubles and happen upon an undersea population of newts. These clever creatures the Europeans then capture, trade, enslave, and turn into a labor force. Turns out newts are adept at all sorts of projects, including altering shorelines and creating shipping lanes, plus they can learn to speak. In time the newts become conscious of their oppression, organize and rise up, engage in full-on revolutionary class warfare with explosives, overthrow their exploiters, take over—and it’s a whole newt world.

Natsu Natsu Onoda Power (called Newtsu in the program!) turns this dark saga into a witty romp. When the newts are in their native habitat, fish projected on a scrim swim by accompanied by sounds of burbling water, and a projected bubble floats up if a newt burps. When the newts become workers, they march and dance about wearing hard hats. Using big white cubes, they mime all kinds of projects—building reservoirs, water locks, dams, artificial islands—in a wordless scene that’s a high point and a delight.

But Čapek’s serious thrust is not left out. When the servant class of newts is made subjects in sadistic medical experiments, their torture is choreographed excruciatingly. And the ending—when avenging newts triumph—is literally explosive.

A brilliant team of stage artists has collaborated on this extravaganza, among them Sound Designer Sean Craig, Scenic Designer Luciana Stecconi, Costume Designer Debra Kim Sivigny, Lighting Designer G. Ryan Smith, and Projections Designer Lauren Joy.

The spirited student cast—who make the fun they’re having infectious—consists of Michael Doonay, Michaela Farrell, Kate Ginna, Jordanna Hernandez, Carolyn Kenneally, Ben Lillian, Johnny Monday, Greg Ongao, George Prugh, Taylor Rasmussen, Danny Woods, and Marc Byrnes (as an author named J.D. Salamander!).

This sensational show is fleeting; it plays only through November 21. If you manage to catch it you’ll see fantastical imagination on display and a timely parable at play.

Running Time: One hour 35 minutes, including one intermission.

War With the Newts plays through November 21, 2015, at the Davis Performing Center’s Gonda Theatre at Georgetown University – 37th & O Streets NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, purchase them online.