A Challenging Chorus

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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Metaphor can be tricky in the theater.

Find the right one and the action on stage can suddenly open to a larger world and -- what a moment ago was just a play suddenly becomes a big play.

Stefanie Zadravec's play Colony Collapse at the Boston Court Theatre is a big play...but not in all the ways that its creators intended.

The titular metaphor is the colony collapse of bees. To quote the play, “Colony Collapse Disorder is responsible for the catastrophic rise in the disappearance of the North American Bee Population. The disorder affects the adult bees’ ability to navigate and is the result of a lack of healthy adult bees inside the hive."

The lack of healthy adult humans is the connecting thread across the play’s two hours and 45 minutes and two distinct story lines.

The story at the heart of the play revolves around a couple of addicts who are trying to get their lives back together by running an orchard in rural Oregon. Hence the bees. You see, Mark's recently out of prison and as a felon can't really find good work. His current wife, Julia, is 10 months clean from a bad meth addiction. Together, they're trying to reinvent themselves.

Dropped into this struggle is Jason, Mark's estranged 18-year-old son who suddenly turns up in the middle of the night looking to reconnect -- and ostensibly escape from his meth addict mom, Mark's ex-wife Nicky. Needless to say this isn't a healthy hive.

Swirling in the background is the search for a missing teenager.

This is what connects us to the play's other narrative thread: a chorus of five ghostly parents who have all lost children to mysterious circumstances. They haunt the perimeter of the stage sharing their tragedies though overlapping stories that chronicle how their child went missing and the emotional repercussions.

Sounds like a lot doesn't it? Well, it is and that's unfortunate because Colony Collapse is a beautiful small play that's fighting against itself.

The story at the core -- of a son trying to reconnect, make amends, and find his place in a dysfunctional family -- is profound and raw. It's powerfully acted and stays with you. The story on the periphery of these lost parents is attempting to forge a connection between the specific and the general. Or connect it up to a larger crisis, like Colony Collapse Disorder.

The trouble is the two narrative arcs are at odds with each other. In many ways, this false chorus telegraphs the audience's journey in less than helpful ways. As we, in the audience, are just making our way into the world of the play, this chorus is announcing the theme of the play that we've yet to experience. It’s not Brechtian -- it’s just a bummer. Later these parents in the chorus are getting their lives back and moving on at precisely the moment that our core story is reaching its climax. You can imagine a world in which those two competing narratives are thrilling and complicated. This isn't that world.

That's too bad because the writing and acting in the core of Colony Collapse is powerful enough to make it worth the journey. It's definitely a case where less would've been more.

Colony Collapse plays at the Boston Court Theatre in Pasadena through March 20.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Run Time: 2 hours and 45 minutes with one intermission.

Photo: Paula Christensen and Riley Neldam in Collony Collapse. (Ed Krieger)