Newts on the attack! Next Theatre delivers a portentous (and perplexing) production

Newts on display: the cast of Next Theatre’s “War With the Newts.”

Heads up! Salamanders are taking over! (Or, I guess we also call them “newts.” What’s the difference, anyway?)

Next Theatre’s wildly inventive new play War With the Newts: Mr. Povondra’s Dream, created by Jason Loewith and Justin D.M. Palmer, adapts Czech-born Karel Čapek’s 1936 novel about a bizarre — yet eerily familiar — society where newts take over the world. (Having never read the novel, this Wikipedia article has proven useful.)

At its most basic level, the material explores the consequences of exploitation. What happens when the masses, which are fueled by the rage of having been exploited, acquire the means to organize a rebellion? In the case of War With the Newts, these slimy creatures, which greedy humans use as pearl farmers and later in other areas of industrial development upon discovering their freakish ability to rapidly pick up new trades, quickly gain human intelligence and turn against us.

Loewith and Palmer tell this cautionary and satirical tale from the perspective of Povandra (Joseph Wycoff), the butler to G.H. Bondy (Will Zahrn) — a wealthy and industrious businessman who knows how to properly exploit an opportunity when he sees it. When a shell-shocked Captain van Toch (Steve Pickering), who has discovered these newts, arrives at Bondy’s manor unexpectedly in the first scene, Povandra literally opens the door to the start of a major rebellion.

Povandra soon becomes obsessed with maintaining news clippings of the newt uprising, pushing his wife and son to the wayside. His attic resembles an early 20th century edition of “Hoarders,” with newspapers piled to the sky. Wycoff does an admirable job showing this man’s unraveling — but both my theatre companion and I were left wondering if the entire newt uprising was only in his head?

I won’t reveal if it wasn’t. But know this: we were fairly bewildered through most of it. I’m sure this has more to do with our ignorance concerning the intricacies of fascism, colonialism, elitism, and the various other political dynamics surrounding the time Čapek wrote his novel than the play itself.

From a basic entertainment-value perspective, it seems to take an awfully long time for any action to come about. The play only gets going after loads of set-up near the final third, and then it ends abruptly. I kept waiting for the newts to make an appearance, and when they do, it’s part of a dream sequence. Boo!

But I guess seeing dancing newts onstage isn’t the point, is it? I mean, it’s not really about the newts — but what they represent. (Are you following me? Because I’m not sure I am.)

Still, it’s a provocative piece of work, and Next Theatre offers a fully-realized production, with scenic elements that rival larger Chicago companies (though the use of the Mullady Theatre’s rising orchestra pit at the end just seemed random). The smallish audience last night seemed to enjoy it, with the kind of buzz that follows thought-provoking theatre. However, I was left scratching my head.

“War With the Newts” plays through June 20 at the Kathleen Mullady Theatre, 1125 W. Loyola Ave. More info here >

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