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Hive Mentality: “The Apiary” reviewed

Set “twenty-two years in the future” according to the program, Kate Douglas’ The Apiary takes place in a synthetic apiary where a dedicated team tends not to birds but rather honeybees. Led by the domineering Gwen (Taylor Schilling, Orange is the New Black), the laboratory workers, including Pilar (Carmen M. Herlihy) and new arrival Zora (April Matthis, The Piano Lesson, Primary Trust), struggle to sustain the hives despite a lack of funding and insufficient resources.

When the dead body of a former worker unexpectedly shows up in the apiary, it provides a strange opportunity. Budding scientist and bee lover Zora observes that the corpse has provided a home for the bees’ now booming hives. So it seems natural that the dead bodies of animals might deliver the same results.

Unfortunately, the bees prove picky in their choice of deceased domicile, preferring human to animal corpses. Zora and the ever-enthusiastic Pilar thus hatch a plan to recruit terminally ill recruits from local cancer victim support groups to help them fulfill their suicidal urges at the apiary in the name of science and the breeding of the bees that are so essential to our environment. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, the play, for one thing, since Douglas’ writing leans heavily into abstraction, forgoing such elements as narrative cohesiveness, coherent dialogue, and character development. Instead, director Kate Whoriskey (Clyde’s, Sweat) infuses the amorphous proceedings with such stylized elements (not present in the script) as numerous interludes in which a lithe dancer (Stephanie Crousillat), wearing a skimpy outfit and a gas mask, performs interpretive dances in a transparent box. She’s apparently mean to represent the bees, but considering how little else about the play proves explicable it’s hard to be sure.

At one point early on, Pilar enthusiastically tells Zora, “The bees are very sensitive and so smart! They dance! They tell jokes!” We can’t tell if she’s demented or herself telling a joke, and it’s a prime example of the lackluster strangeness that permeates the evening. The bizarre concept might have worked in the hands of someone fully committed to its grisly absurdities, like filmmakers John Waters or Sam Raimi, but the playwright seems strangely constrained, never fully leaning into the horror aspects or, frankly, anything else. A play about dead bodies being used as incubators for beehives should presumably elicit either screams of terror or belly laughs, or both, not merely an occasional chuckle.

The ensemble, which also includes Nimene Wureh in a variety of roles, do their best with the strained material but are ultimately unable to breathe much life into their thinly developed characters (it seems a particular shame with such established talents as Schilling and Matthis). The production itself can’t be faulted, including the sterile white set design by Walt Spangler. At least what you can see of it — much of the action takes place behind a fine white net, which ironically serves as a visual correlative to the play’s murky themes.