“i do not see why men
should be so proud
insects have the more
according to the scientists
insects were insects
when man was only
a burbling whatsit”
It’s dusk. We’re sitting in a garden at The Cathedral of St. John the Divine, some on folding chairs, some on blankets. Skewed and graphic buildings with windows lit from within, tilt from the staging area. A big, old Remington typewriter sits atop the angled battered desk in the foreground- managing somehow not to slide off. There’s live, atmospheric 50s jazz. The machine begins to type- seemingly by itself. Enter Archy (named for The Washington Square Arch), free verse poet, philosopher, curmudgeon; a deceased bard who’s been reincarnated as a cockroach. You heard me. The articulate insect “expression is the need of my soul” leaps from key to key every night in his “boss’s” office composing lower case missives. Cockroaches cannot handle the shift key. Most, unfortunately, meet their end devoured by a rat jealous of Archy’s talent.
If you’ve missed another summer at The Delacorte unable to imagining queuing at 6 a.m., here’s a viable alternative: a compilation of dark, smart, humorous material, packaged with visual charm, performed intimately in a verdant wood.
Based on Don Marquis’s characters originally invented for a 1916 humor column in The New York Sun, collected in book form (1927), and made into the musical Archy and Mehitabel co-authored by Mel Brooks (1957), the piece employs puppets, masks, and song to dramatize Archy’s adventures and observations. Part of the rights were withheld necessitating use of some of the author’s unrelated columns, a more episodic treatment, and the addition of original music.
Foremost among creatures to whom we’re introduced is the proud and ever prowling alley cat Mehitabel: My youth i shall never forget/but there s nothing i really regret/wotthehell wotthehell/there’s a dance in the old dame yet/toujours gai,toujours gai. The sophisticated but romantically gullible feline keeps falling for the wrong guys. To Mehitabel, Archy is audience, confidante, and admirer. There’s Freddy the Rat, who doesn’t have much to say, but protects them against a mean Mexican Tarantula “I was nursed on a tobasco bottle” (spoiler: despite the rat’s best efforts there are casualties), a bragging Flea, and a Cricket so happy Cheer-up! Cheer-up! Cheer-up! Archy wants “to swat his optimism.” (Later we learn the cheer factor is a popular misconception.)
We also meet: Henry and Mabel, a Long Island couple whose typewriter Archy commandeers when lost, “Dear Boss, Come and get me. I am footsore and weary,” a garden of cantata singing vegetables with priceless expressions (the peas manage counterpoint), and an Egyptian mummy Archy interviews at The Metropolitan Museum. Long Island and the garden interlude are funny, the mummy is unquestionably a highpoint. Skits that seem out of place include one involving two pairs of dancing, talking shoes and a family of Beds whose daughter is forced to marry Brass because of money owed—Marquis’s take on the NYPD’s 1927 crackdown of Bedroom Plays. (Great looking puppets.)
In conclusion, our hero quotes his conversation with an ant “…he said man was usin’ up the earth because of the greed of a thousand little kings. Ants and scorpions are getting ready for the conquering.” Pause “I’m a pessimistic guy. I see things from the underside.”
Actors are, for the most part, visible. One’s eye wanders from puppet to player. As the thespians are all fully invested and excel at their craft, this doesn’t impede enjoyment.
Tom Marion has Archy to a T. His nasal Bronx(?) accent, comic timing, and wonderful facial expressions create consistently wry and skillful embodiment of the little guy. Tanya Dougherty’s is aptly languid and narcissistic as Mehitabel conveying both her character’s toughness and the beat up heart she bears. She sings beautifully.
Andrew Butler and Rob McFadyen are fine in many parts. Like Archy, one wants to throttle Butler’s Cricket while McFadyen’s cartoon-Mexican accent (Tarantula) is pitch perfect and one’s eyebrows come to a point during his surprising turn as the mummy.
Neal Kirkwood’s incidental music is evocative 1950s bop while unmelodic songs emulate Kurt Weil and Mark Blitzstein. Musicians Ed Rosenberg III, Dennis Sullivan, and Amelia Grossman do a solid job.
Adaptation by Ralph Lee and Scott Cargle is yeoman like. All of Archy’s segments are wonderful, but those that wander far from easily beloved characters don’t integrate well. Director/ Designer Ralph Lee has been working his magic over fifty years. He can be counted on for whimsical, grotesque and frightening creatures of originality and craftsmanship.
Among this group, the mummy costume is inspired, but I take issue with Mehitabel whose amorphous shape and lack of sex appeal (not even long eyelashes?!) were a disappointment.
Ralph Lee’s Mettawee Theatre Company presents
Communications From A Cockroach: Archy and the Under Side
The South Garden at The Cathedral of St. John the Divine
Entrance down the path at 111th and Amsterdam Avenue
Friday, Saturday, Sunday September 14, 15, 16 at 7:30 p.m.
$12.00 Adults, $6.00 Children