Brave Newt World

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Publication: American Theatre
Author: Weinert-Kendt, Rob
Date published: May 1, 2010


Brave Newt World

ITS TITLE AND PLOTLINE MAKE WAR WITH THE Newts sound like a 1950s B-movie. But Ka rei Capek's 1936 novel about ;i race of sentient lizards turning on the humans who have exploited them is considered by his fellow Czechs to be Capek's masterpiece (he's best known in the U.S. for his 1920 drama R. U. R., which introduced the word "robot"). And while playwrights Jason Loewith and Justin D.M. Palmer - whose stage adaptation of War with the Newts runs at the Next Theatre May 21-June 20-plan to indulge the work's fantastic and spectacular elements (a 24-foot salamander, designed by local puppeteer Michael Montenegro, will make an appearance), the production they envision hews closer to outright political satire than sci-fi or horror.

"The novel is frequently misunderstood as a roman ŕ clef about the rise of Nazism," points out Loewith, who recently adapted Elmer Rice's The Adding Machine into an unconventional musical hit for the Next. "That was not Capek's only target. His bigger point is that people allowed totalitarianism to happen - they acted in their own self-interest while ignoring the horror gathering around them."

The story follows Povondra, butler for a wealthy industrialist, who comes to blame himself for the lizard-borne apocalypse that begins after he opens his master's door to let in a crusty sea captain who has discovered a race of worker newrts in the Pacific.

Dramaturg Celise Kalke, who is on staff at Atlanta's Alliance Theatre and who introduced Capek's novel to Loewith, was first exposed to the Czech writer's work on the stage, not the page, in a Prague production of Capek's The Insect Play. "I couldn't understand the language, but the images and the story were so strong, I understood what the play was about," recalls Kalke. Indeed, Capek's frequent use of animals and automatons as metaphors for human hubris may suggest the work of another Czech writer.

"Capek wrote out of the same impulse as, but in a different style from, Kafka," offers Next artistic director Jason Southerland. "He's not as absurdist-unless you consider talking newts absurd."

-Rob Weinert-Kendt

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