May 13, 2024 Coverage and Posts, CSA, Theater

REVIEW: Apis Creates a Buzz Over Environmental Consciousness

Petrichor | by Vanessa Reseland

In a world teetering on the brink of ecological collapse, where the honeybee symbolizes both humanity’s interconnectedness with nature and its perilous disregard for it, Lindsay Goranson’s APIS is equal parts inventive storytelling and environmental advocacy. Presented as part of the New Hazlett Theater’s Community Supported Art (CSA) Series, “APIS” invites audiences into a world where science fiction (think Black Mirror) and puppetry (think Mystery Science Theater 3000) join forces to craft a narrative that not only entertains but challenges its viewers. It successfully confronts the pressing issues of food scarcity, pollinator decline, and the consequences of human neglect. APIS is steeped in Goranson’s passion for environmental wellness and activism.

At the heart of this futuristic tale is the titular figure of Apis, a human character imbued with the characteristics of the European honeybee, the Apis (Latin for bee) mellifera (honey bearing). Played by CSA series veteran, Jalina McClarin, the comparisons between human character and insect inspiration were delightfully noticeable in McClarin’s frenetic and fast-paced performance. Essentially a drone for Monomart, the only food shopping option available for living creatures, Apis is an indentured “employee” for the monopoly. In a world where the surface temperature has reached heights incompatible with life itself, all living beings have been driven underground. All fresh fruits and vegetables have become hot commodities, turning up on the black market and sold with the same level of secrecy and danger as other contraband like drugs or weapons in our current world. In APIS’s ambiguous future setting, convenience stores have been swallowed up, along with consumer choice, by Monomart. Apis is woken up day-in and day-out by a robo-call with “personality” brought to them by “Itty Bitty.” Itty Bitty seems to be the world’s “ask and it arrives” delivery service and the company running the daily life of this country’s inhabitants.

Goranson invited audiences to confront the harsh realities in a world where access to fresh produce is a luxury reserved for the privileged few. As Apis grapples with the monotony of working day-in and day-out in an underground food factory and the specter of pollinator decline looms large, the audience is compelled to confront their own complicity in the degradation of the natural world.

While the story-telling was compelling from the start, there was some confusion over the timeline and setting. How far in the future is this show taking place? The reference to Apis as the “last human being…on this compound” led to questions like, “What is a compound?” “Are they on Earth?” “Are there people on other compounds?” “Are compounds on other planets?” Some clarification would have helped the audience focus on the current moment instead of inevitably falling behind the plot a bit trying to piece previous information together. That said, APIS did not fall into the common trap of relying on heavy-handed exposition during its introduction. If given the choice, it feels more exciting to be a little lost in an intriguing world than to be hand-held through the obvious, but a few revisions could quickly resolve the issue. Despite some muddled plot-points, APIS is very clearly facing relatable and timely subjects that catch our attention in a clever and captivating format. Even in its first few moments, this production explores the perils of consumerism, mirroring our Amazon-dependent world and where our growing dependency on convenience could lead us.

The set and production design included some charming choices despite the fact that the characters were living lives deprived of choice, expression, and personality. Black and white made up the color scheme for the set off the bat. Sharp lines and angles brought a chill to the appropriately bare set, which was also designed by Goranson. The packages are all labeled, “FÜD” with FÜ on one side in a little wink to the audience, splitting the word by the cube’s edge, and including the D on the next side. A huge white screen acted as a cold, clinical backdrop and home for text and live video feed that was present at particular moments through the show. The use of minimalism proved efficient and appropriate given the lack of vividness in this largely robotic future. Apis navigates a dystopian landscape devoid of color and joy, and audiences witness a tale all too present and foreboding in our current reality. The urgent need for environmental stewardship was an underlying voice throughout the show. Akin to Black Mirror, the future on stage was one we see coming. Where Black Mirror follows the expected path of technology into the near future, APIS follows climate change, pollinator decline, and human greed down their most likely paths along with technology. Sans intervention, the audience sees their potential future and the map of their own demise in this show, and it is a persuasive call to duty. Lindsay Goranson, the mastermind behind this multidisciplinary experience, wears multiple hats as the playwright, puppet designer and fabricator, and scenic designer, infusing the production with purpose.

Puppets play a pivotal and bewitching role in APIS. Through this diverse cast of puppet characters, fabricated by Goranson and joyously operated by D.T. Burns and Rory Janney, audiences were invited to view the world through the eyes of its smallest inhabitants. The result is a whimsical yet poignant exploration of humanity’s relationship with the natural world, underscored by the much-needed empathy elicited by the puppet characters.

Bazinga Bob, the Blue Orchid Bee from even further in the future than Apis, is a time-traveling insect communicating by “web-cam” made out of bee bread (a type of pollen ball) delivered to Apis by Itty Bitty. One of the highlights of this show was the video cast of Bazinga’s live feed presented on the large screen upstage. The tiny set created by Miniatures Designers Amy Walls and Ken Walls, was presented in such detail that tickled those paying attention. Magnified by the video feed, we could see Bob’s bohemian paradise of a set. Made of 75% recycled and repurposed materials, tiny throw pillows, snake plants, leather bound books, a disco ball, beaded curtains, and a delectable assortment of David Bowie swag were so particular that Bob’s hideaway gave us a dash of hope in this dystopian future. Itty Bitty’s delivery ant, Nan, operated by both Burns and Janney, showcased fabulous design and execution. The Nifty Bot, Apis’ coworker, created Monomarts ideal robotic worker while a “retired” Nifty Bot sold contraband fruits and vegetables on the street with a shocking twist reminiscent of conspiracy thrillers like Enemy of the State. Fortunately, APIS’ use of humor allowed the hard truths of this story to come through without scaring viewers away from the cause.

As the narrative unfolds, “APIS” seamlessly weaves together elements of science fiction, comedy, and environmental activism. Seamus Ricci’s direction imbued the production with a sense of scale, suspense, and transformation. Sound design and a brilliant original score by Ramin Akhavijou come on the heels of his gorgeous work on the previous CSA series show, the hugely successful musical undertaking, UNDERLAND X Alice by Kontara Morphis. Akhavijou set a perfect tone for a futuristic world on the brink of collapse. Allison McSwain’s lighting design added depth and atmosphere and as many hexagonal honeycombs as could tastefully fit onstage. Together, the creative team crafts a world that is equal parts mesmerizing and thought-provoking, inviting audiences to immerse themselves in a journey of discovery and reflection.

Despite its ambitious scope, “APIS” is not without its weaknesses. The narrative, while inventive, occasionally struggles with clarity at times. The questions about the timeline become more convoluted as Apis and Bob meet in an undisclosed time and place, brought together by the powers that be. The live feed that was so entertaining as a recognizable web-cam then became a voyeur for this climactic encounter. In a moment that pleaded with the audience to “rise and repair the land for the future” and to “stay wild,” all on stage stood together until the stage went dark. It was powerful but also a jarringly abrupt ending. Though it was a compelling stand-alone moment, it succumbed to the trap of many endings to sci-fi stories where the hero has experienced an epiphany along with our audience. There was nowhere to go after the revelation, and so it simply ended in a way that may have left audiences feeling slightly unrewarded. However, it is possible we don’t deserve to be rewarded. There is no satisfying ending to the show as there is no satisfying end to climate change without action, no rewarding conclusion to consumerism unless we rebel from the Monomarts of our real world. Maybe this is our rightful ending until we commit to preventing the story of APIS in our real lives. Goranson has left the show in our hands.

Because APIS is a cautionary tale told in a thoughtful and creative manner, the overall impact of the production’s message is a real success. In a world grappling with the existential threat of climate change, “APIS” serves as a timely reminder of the power of art to inspire change and provoke meaningful dialogue. The message of APIS lingers after the final bow, challenging us to reevaluate our relationship with the natural world and the legacy we leave for future generations.

Vanessa Reseland (they/them) is an actor/singer/songwriter who has performed all over the US and in the UK. After growing up in the North Hills, Vanessa spent 12 years in New York City and three years in Los Angeles, working in musical theatre, film, and television before returning to Pittsburgh to dive into the local arts scene as well. They played the Witch in Fiasco Theater’s Into the Woods in London and on the US National Tour, winning the Helen Hayes Award for Outstanding Visiting Production and the LA Critic’s Circle Award for Best Ensemble Cast. Vanessa is a founding member of MOD Theatre Company in NYC/LA and co-created and co-directed the webseries, Remarkable Women, with Alexandra Lenihan. They have performed their original glam rock/artpop project, WIFEY, since 2012



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