On Uncertain Ground: Sandbox Theatre’s “War With the Newts”

Jaime Kleiman reviews Sandbox Theatre's ambitious, eye-catching stage adaptation of Karel Capek's 1936 dystopian novel exploring the pitfalls of greed and unbridled capitalism.

War With the Newts, presented by the Sandbox Theatre
Production photo from WWTN
WWTN mask with knife
Julia as Newt

Sandbox Theatre’s adaptation of War With the Newts Czech writer Karel Čapek’s eponymous 1936 novel, is an exercise in Suzuki method performance and thematic movement. In layman’s terms: it looks really cool. The adept ensemble has created a convincing likeness of Čapek’s denuded world using unexpected splashes of color and impressive vocal and mask work. The set, by Sandbox founder Ryan Hill, consists of three docks extending towards the audience. The space in between the docks represents water. The physically skilled actors clearly know exactly what the show is about, which is good, because the play itself is obtuse, and the actual story hard to follow. As adept as the performers are, they can’t keep the production on course over its full ninety minutes in the absence of a clearly discernible plot, a necessity for any tale—science fiction or not.

The themes—capitalism gone bad, societal indifference and capitulation—in War With the Newts are reminiscent of those in Ionesco’s Rhinoceros and Orwell’s
Animal Farm
, but this production is original in its telling of them. The world of War With the Newts is one where greedy humans looking for a quick profit discover a goldmine in the depths of an Oriental lagoon. Actually, what they discover is a pearl fishery, which is better than gold because the water also happens to be occupied by highly intelligent and pliant salamanders. And, unfortunately for them, the humans quickly discover that they also make excellent oyster-openers. Enslaved but now
aware of their own aptitude, the newts chafe under the oppressive rule of the humans and begin an uncompromising war in retaliation, attacking the humans with the most terrifying weapon on the planet: water. This antediluvian deluge is more destructive than a nuclear warhead (just ask God), and the newts’ continental conquests make the Incas look like teething puppies. By the time the humans realize the follies of their behavior, it’s too little, too late. The newts have flooded the world, effectively drowning the human race. Evolution via capitalist competition is a
grim affair.

Perhaps the most intriguing thing about this production is its choice of source material. With adaptations, an audience usually walks in with expectations about how a beloved book should be done. In this re-telling of the more obscure novel War With the Newts, the unknown characters, nontraditional acting, and foreign atmosphere help
maintain the suspense. In these modern times, if you think of the newts as symbolic placeholders for, say, the Bush administration or Osama bin Laden’s hardnosed puffery, Čapek’s story—Sandbox Theatre’s ambitious but uneven production notwithstanding—offers an imaginative, if liminal, look into the

About the reviewer: Jaime Kleiman is an award-winning theater critic who is now venturing back into acting.

What: War With the Newts presented by Sandbox

The Red Eye Theater, Minneapolis, MN

When: Performances run through Saturday, November 17

Tickets: Call (612) 554-1302 or visit Sandbox Theatre’s website, www.aboutthisplay.com, for full information.