Review: In ‘The Apiary,’ the Bees Have a Troubling Tale to Tell

Here’s a pitch you haven’t heard before. It’s 2046. Bees in the wild have succumbed to a planet-wide die-off, taking almonds, avocados and honey down with them. But in a subterranean lab, three women doing “palliative care” with four remaining broods make a hopeful if gruesome discovery.

Also, it’s a comedy. Call it “Little Hive of Horrors.”

That’s the setup, if nowhere near the payoff, of the “The Apiary,” a bright, strange and mesmerizing marvel by Kate Douglas, making her professional playwriting debut with this Off Off Broadway production. Unlike most such debuts, though, “The Apiary,” which opened on Tuesday at Second Stage’s Tony Kiser Theater, is receiving a nearly perfect, first-class staging under the almost too good direction of Kate Whoriskey.

I say “almost too good” because a staging so sensitive yet confident could disguise whatever flaws may lurk in the text. So be it: “The Apiary” flies by with so much good humor and novel eye candy (I don’t think I’ve ever seen a bee lab represented onstage before) that you barely register the way the playwright’s thematic focus comes dangerously close to obsession.

The insects are everywhere. To begin with, Walt Spangler’s set is dominated by four hive boxes and a gigantic gauze-walled chamber filled with little prop bugs I could swear were swarming. The backdrop features a honeycomb pattern. The floor, the railings and even the paper in the beekeepers’ desktop inboxes are bumblebee yellow.

It’s not just the visuals, though. The characters talk bees, live bees, dream bees. Gwen (Taylor Schilling) is perhaps the least emotionally attached: As the lab’s manically insecure manager, she’s freaked out by the decline of the broods under her care less because it might mean ecological collapse than because it might mean funding cutbacks from “upstairs.” Countering her, the relentlessly optimistic Pilar (Carmen M. Herlihy) fully stans the critters: They are “very sensitive and so so smart,” she explains merrily to a newcomer. “They dance! They tell jokes.”

We don’t hear those jokes, but between scenes we do see Stephanie Crousillat, in yoga wear and a gas mask — the costumes are by Jennifer Moeller — performing Warren Adams’s creepy bee choreography.

The equilibrium of Gwen’s panic and Pilar’s positivity is disturbed by the purposefulness of the newcomer, Zora (April Matthis). A biochemist taking a big step down professionally to care for bees, she is a closet zealot who will do anything to help the colonies survive. Having read in a study that plastic flowers put queens in the mood for love, she conscripts Pilar into helping her test the hypothesis. Later, the hypotheses get more problematic, both practically and ethically.

I won’t go into that further except to mention the play’s fifth performer, Nimene Wureh, who portrays a series of volunteers willing to participate in Zora’s final experiment.

The performances are perfect individually, but are also perfectly calibrated: Matthis all business, Schilling all frenzy, Herlihy just completely delightful. Also perfectly calibrated are the design elements, including the dramatic lighting (by Amith Chandrashaker), the unnerving sound (by Christopher Darbassie) and the seething music (by Grace McLean). The way Whoriskey orchestrates these elements for maximum expressiveness gives the play a professional sheen that acts as a kind of quality seal, inviting you to slip past its slight longueurs and relax into its oddness.

If you do, you may find yourself thinking about more than just bees. Despite wandering fairly close to the electrified fence of an idée fixe, Douglas gradually lets us understand that the health of the broods is tied to our own; seen from a distance, in our downstairs labs with our upstairs overlords, in our social colonies that thrive or suffer together, we are not much different from them. Our joys no less than our sorrows are interconnected.

That these ideas are mere suggestions is one of the play’s great strengths. So is its refusal to sharpen its point to a stinger, to slather the action with a moral or message. That kind of brand discipline is too often beaten into new works by the heavy-handedness of years of workshopping. Spontaneity and idiosyncrasy are beaten out.

Not so here. Though the product of a developmental process involving the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center and Second Stage’s own Next Stage Festival, “The Apiary” has evidently emerged unadulterated. If anyone along the way tried to make this cheery-sad 70-minute thought experiment about death into something else, they failed. Its bee theme has been allowed to remain a platform instead of being boxed in, a way of uplifting ideas, not pinning them down.

What the play received instead of a thousand contrasting critiques is a top-notch production, allowing Douglas to see the hive she built. In an endangered theatrical colony, that’s the best experiment of all.

The Apiary
Through March 3 at Second Stage’s Tony Kiser Theater; Manhattan; Running time: 1 hour 10 minutes.

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