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Ants

nytheatre.com review by Nita Congress
February 9, 2013

Ants

Carol Todd and Michael Samuel Kaplan in a scene from Ants | SuzAnn Barabas

Nature versus nurture. Science versus spirituality. Control versus chance. Democracy versus totalitarianism, capitalism versus communism. The war between the sexes, the complexity of sisterhood. Feminism and factories. Laboratories and love.

And, oh yes, ants.

Mia and Kara are Eastern European émigrés whose lives revolve around the fulfillment of Mia’s biochemical ambitions, as she does her graduate work guided by Professor Adam Kohn. The subject of Mia’s studies is ants; she dreams of accepting a Nobel Prize for her grandiloquent notion of turning worker ants into queens: to give them wings. The human parallel is not hard to discern. Older, embittered sister Kara has worked tirelessly at the local factory to ensure the continuance of Mia’s academic career: “I am so tired of American dream; I’d rather have my own nightmare.” A wish that she is granted when she is unceremoniously sacked—the first of many downturns for Kara and Mia that force them to confront and question their most fundamental loves, hopes, beliefs, and fears.

The intersecting journeys of Mia the optimistic but naive scientist, the workhorse Kara whose refuge is the tarot, and the jaded academic Adam make for a fascinating story. Playwright Saviana Stanescu has developed a smart piece that roams widely but never loses sight of the three appealing humans at its heart.

The actors more than meet the play’s demands, delivering literate, idea-packed dialogue and monologues with humor and honesty. The characters the playwright and actors have together developed are complex, quirky, and utterly believable as they travel ultimately logical but unforeseen arcs. Maria Silverman’s Mia is sunny, vulnerable, guileless, and utterly lovable. Carol Todd has created a nuanced Kara who moves effortlessly from darkest cynicism and blackest humor to warmth and spontaneity. As Adam, Michael Samuel Kaplan delivers a character who could be despicable, but is instead charming and highly appealing.

Director Jeff Zinn—together with the able team of New Jersey Rep designers—has tamed the challenge of Stanescu’s myriad scene changes (at least two locations inside the sisters’ home, two outside the house, and two on campus, including the biology lab) by creating discrete coexisting sets on the modest New Jersey Rep stage. We always know where we are: the hallmark of a very good director. So the lab can be right past Mia’s elbow, but she is firmly grounded in her living room talking to her sister—and we are right there with her, not the least bit interested in or distracted by the lab equipment just next to her.

The designers—Jessica Parks (scenic design), Patricia E. Doherty (costume), Jill Nagle (lighting)—have opted for predominately blue tones, which is appropriate: blue sky optimism, but the cold blue of scientific reasoning. The foremost set is similarly grounded in rock. And the set design is dominated by wonderful curling, coiling ant nests that both decorate and inform.

This play is so rich, so warm, so engaging, so full to the brim with ideas and enthusiasm, it leaves you happy, hopeful, and satisfied. And thoroughly educated on the life cycle of an ant colony.