Archy, an intellectual cockroach, Mehitabel, a pretty cat
who believes she was Cleopatra in a past life, and their insect
friends share thoughts on and stories about life in New York
City in the entertaining traveling puppet show, "Communications
from a Cockroach: archy and the underside."
"Communications from a Cockroach" is an adaptation of Don Marquis’ poems about Archy and Mehitabel, which ran in his New York Evening Sun column from 1916 to 1935.
According to Marquis, Archy showed up on his typewriter one night, having typed out the message, "expression is the need of my soul."
The humor of Marquis’ tales are successfully conveyed in this adaptation, directed by Ralph Lee. His modest production, a series of sketches, is performed by a talented cast of four actors, and it includes live musical accompaniment, a suitably off-kilter set, and an amiable cast of puppets - all of which contribute to the charm of the show.
Tom Marion manipulates and gives voice to Archy, the typing cockroach, who leaves out punctuation marks and cannot reach the shift key, hence, no caps. Marion is successfully neurotic and passionate in portraying the brainy cockroach. Margi Sharp’s main character is Mehitabel. Freddy the rat and a flea are both performed by Sam Zuckerman.
George Drance stands out with his performances as the tarantula with a temper and the happy cricket. As the cricket, he draws laughs by nearly driving Archy mad. He repeatedly sings, "Cheer up!" Grumpy Archy eventually gives in a little, and gets the audience to join in singing the refrain.
Drance is just as funny in a later scene, where cricket becomes sad and sings the blues (about having prickly heat and losing his love after she fell into a spider web).
Archy narrates and comments on his adventures throughout the play. Along the way, he witnesses a battle between Tarantula and Freddy the rat that ends in a double funeral. He startles a Long Island couple by waking them with his typing. (Though the couple is frightened, they soon wind up arguing and forget all about Archy.) He meets a pharaoh at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and philosophizes with Mehitabel, flea and his other insect friends.
Archy’s comments are often both amusing and thought provoking. His response to cricket’s incessant happy singing is, "Now I know why Shakespeare killed off Mercutio so early in the play."
After digesting cricket’s advice, Archy agrees and tells the audience, "You always have to be up in the world. After all, there might be someone more up than you. Cheer up!"
And later, after cricket sings the blues, Archy comments that perhaps "one reason crickets are so melancholy is that they have the artistic temperament." The clever script and the allure of the singing insects with human thoughts are all part of what makes this show enjoyable for children and adults.
The success of "Communications From a Cockroach" is especially due to the work of director and designer Lee. The Obie award-winning artist designed the appropriately recumbent set and handcrafted the cast of 10 puppets.
The set is simple yet immediately impressive in that it depicts an office and a cluster of skyscrapers with just a few angled flats and a desk. The tilted desk acts as the central meeting place for the cast of critters throughout the show.
Though Archy is not adorable, he’s likable nonetheless, with his movable legs and expressive antenna. Mehitabel, a larger puppet, is a fuzzy cat whose movements are flirtatious and romantic. Tarantula is particularly engaging with his many legs wrought from material resembling red Christmas garland - each one clad with a cowboy boot.
The original score, by Neal Kirkwood, for saxophone, clarinet and vibraphone, complements this light-hearted production.
Lee, artistic director of the Mettawee Theatre Company, adapted Marquis’ poems with the help of Scott Cargle, the show’s producer who is also artistic director of the Shakespeare Project.
"Communications From a Cockroach: archy and the underside" is a collaboration of Mettawee River Theatre and the Shakespeare Project. The group travels and performs free in parks and public spaces throughout the five boroughs of New York City as well as upstate New York and parts of New England. The group’s central focus is to make Shakespeare and other theater works accessible to everyone, especially the young, the underprivileged and people who have never experienced live theater.
Archy, born nearly a century ago, is yet another roach that has outlasted man - but he’s a roach worth stepping over to see.
"Communications From a Cockroach:
archy and the underside" tours New York City parks through
Sunday, Sept. 16. The show can next be seen in Brooklyn on Aug.
30 and Aug. 31 at 6:30 pm in Sunset Park (41st Street and Fifth
Avenue). For more information, call the Shakespeare Project Hotline
at (212) 479-7710 or visit their Web site at shakespear