Beeing and Nothingness


Show #27: Beekeeper, Virago Theatre Company, March 24.

Kit Asa-Hauser and Donald Hardy in Beekeeper. Photo by Laura Lundy-Paine.

“Bees don’t leave.” The protagonist of Jennifer Lynne Roberts’s play Beekeeper is told that again and again, but it’s not exactly true. There’s a lot of talk in the play about colony collapse disorder, a growing trend unknown until recently in which a colony of bees simply disappears. The worker bees suddenly abandon the hive, leaving the queen behind, and no other colony moves in to take its place.  It’s a potentially a worrisome situation because our entire ecosystem is so dependent on bees for pollination, which makes it a potentially fascinating subject for a play. As seen in its world premiere run with Alameda’s Virago Theatre Company, Beekeeper is not that play.

A girl raised around bees—and practically raised as a bee by her father—Oleta is now a young bee scholar trying to solve the puzzle of colony collapse disorder. While she’s been off at college in Georgia, her father Frances back home in Oregon has become increasingly obsessed with the idea that their long-absent bee colony is coming back.  All this suggests that maybe their own bees mysteriously disappeared years ago, but as the play goes on we discover that’s not the case at all and they know perfectly well what happened to the bees, even if they don’t like to talk about it.

The play jumps back and forth in time a great deal, with Oleta shown both as an 8-year-old and in her young 20s. The flashbacks get confusing at times in Virago artistic director Laura Lundy-Paine’s slow-moving production at Rhythmix Cultural Works. We get little flashes of a boy taunting little Oleta, calling her a freak, and her father falling a couple of feet off a ladder accompanied by her piercing shriek. We soon find out that Francis died falling out of a tree in Oleta’s absence, so her scream, however impressive, is just a bit of poetic license.  The boy who was heckling her, Daniel, soon comes over for a play date, so it seems like he’s gotten over his issues with her, but soon we see their fight played out again and again and realize that it just hadn’t happened yet.

Julie Gillespie’s set depicts an incredibly messy shack’s kitchen, with newspaper, pie tins, chips and other rubbish strewn all around the floor and table. The rear slat wall has a huge circular hole in it that looks as if it might serve as a window into another scene, although it never does. On the other side of the stage is a tree with a ladder, a tiny square patch of grass, and a beehive made of two wooden crates.

Donald L. Hardy displays an obsessive monomania as Frances that makes him a little disturbing even in his playful dances and lullabies to the bees with little Oleta, played with keen intensity by fifth grader Kit Asa-Hauser. Her Oleta has an introverted quality that makes her bonding with the bees believable. She sings to them, reads stories to them and gets along better with bees than with people—and that goes double for her dad, whose only response to his daughter going off to college is, you guessed it, “Bees don’t leave.”

You can see that fourth grader Julian Lafferty’s Daniel taunts Ollie because he’s scared of her, which is helpful because the shift in his behavior is awfully sudden in the play. Sandi Rubay is sympathetic as Aunt Ida, whose primary role is to nag her brother Francis about how he’s basically raising his daughter to be an outcast. There’s also a running gag about her nagging her husband Bob about his cussing, which he insists is his art. George McRae’s Bob is the “fun uncle” who’s always cracking jokes, although it’s not quite clear if any of them are supposed to be funny. Melissa Keith is mostly sullen and resentful as grown-up Oleta, who had a falling out with her father years ago, and her flirting with Uncle Bob—all the “no man could compare to you” stuff—is just creepy and not at all charming.

Most of the playful banter in the play falls flat, but there are some awfully resonant moments in the play, particularly between Frances, young Oleta and the bees. Much of the material about how the way she bonds with the bees is fascinating. There’s also an interesting conversation between adult Oleta and her dead father about her theory on the bee disappearances, in which he quizzes her like a professor with a promising student. But the rift that grows between them is underdeveloped, even if its root is starkly clear, and the end of the play just kind of trails off without much of a conclusion. There’s definitely an interesting play in here, but the grown-up side of it still needs a lot of work to bring it out.

Beekeeper runs through April 2 at Rhythmix Cultural Works, 2513 Blanding Ave., Alameda.

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