Is there any artistic theme more shopworn than the admonition to be careful what you wish for?
It’s been a wellspring for artists since the cave painters of Lascaux. Usually the cautionary tale of the illusory notion of success, fame or joy plays out through a human who craves power, yet is destroyed by it; whose unrequited love suddenly blooms, then fades too soon; or who wishes to kill his landlady only to be consumed by guilt.
But to those who think they have seen it all before, I give you the humble earthworm of the stunningly vibrant and fresh puppet community of “The Colonists,” now on stage at the Brick Theater in Williamsburg.
In this delightful retelling of the “careful what you wish for” saga, the earthworm is enjoying a simple, but satisfying, life tilling the soil for his friend, a pie-making rabbit. But his life changes forever when he watches a caterpillar climb into a chrysalis and emerge as a beautiful butterfly.
The metamorphosis leaves the earthworm distraught — obsessed actually — over his inability to also take flight. But it also sets into motion the action of “The Colonists.”
The earthworm studies, reads books about flight, fabricates a set of wings and … crashes. (He is promptly given the breath of life by the rabbit — a scene with enormous comic potential that is only shallowly plumbed here, a minor criticism).
The arrival of a colony of bees (hence the title) revives the earthworm’s desire to fly — and, in a series of plot twists that are, frankly, difficult for even those of an advanced age to follow, he achieves his goal when one of the rabbit’s flower-filled pies is carried aloft by the bees back to their hive.
But that’s not enough for our earthworm. Once inside the hive, he sees a worm-like bee larva transform into a queen bee by ingesting royal jelly. Despite a security system that rivals Foggy Bottom, the earthworm sneaks into the inner sanctum, eludes “Mission: Impossible”–style laser beams, rappels down and steals the jelly.
The spy movie spoof, directed expertly by writer Nick Jones with “musical and pyromaniacal consulting” by Raja Azar, is easily the best sequence in a puppet show since Mike Wall broke the so-called “fifth wall” of puppet theater by appearing on stage in “Pinocchio” at Puppetworks in 2008.
You know what happens next: The earthworm transmogrifies into the flying earthworm and he appears happy — until he is chased down by the bees and nearly stung to death.
He arrives home, battered, but learns the most valuable lesson — to thine own self be true — and gets to enjoy a hare pie (a “mud pie,” of course).
So we get happy ending and a child-friendly reminder that yearning is as essential to the human spirit as breathing — but yearning for the wrong things can be suffocating.
Lastly, I would be remiss if I did not single out the work of puppet designer Robin Frohardt, whose flying bees — some powered with batteries — are simply astounding. The detail on these puppets, and the manner in which their peculiar flight is mimicked by puppetmasters in beekeeping suits, is worth the price of admission, which is, alas, a bit steep.
“The Colonists” runs Sundays only through May 24 at 3 and 7 pm at the Brick Theater [575 Metropolitan Ave., between Lorimer and Leonard streets in Williamsburg, (718) 907-6189]. Tickets, $15.