Playwright: Claire Saxe. At: Rough House Theatre Company at Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division Ave. Tickets: RoughHousetheater.com; $20. Runs through: Sept. 30
Most dramatized tales of mankind vs. insect generally conclude with the bug blown up, squashed or incinerated: consider The Fly, Them ( giant ants ), The Beginning of the End ( giant grasshoppers in Chicago ) and Mothra.
With few exceptionsthe great children's classic Charlotte's Web is onebugs are demonized: consider the threatening spiders of Harry Potter or the voracious scarabs of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Cicada Summer refuses to demonize the giant Magicicada tredecassini that's central to its story, but things end badly for the bug nonetheless, its wings torn off ( albeit to save the human heroine ) and its brief summer life at an end. But that's not a fair description of this highly original and elegiac, one-hour human-and-puppet work.
The metamorphosis of any species can be magical or awkward or both. It's often an awkward and insecure time for thirteen year old humans entering adolescence, and so it is for May and her best friend Benjamin, now sensing things about each other, and having feelings towards each other, which weren't there a year earlier. On the other hand, the metamorphosis of a 13-year cicada is pure magic as it becomes a multi-colored winged adult. Arguably, that's the big difference: the human at 13 still is a child while the cicada is a mature adult with very little of its life remaining.
May, frightened by her own first menstrual blood, isn't ready to be grown up. Fleeing from her unsure feelings, and Ben's obviously-interested confusion, May miraculously finds a soulmate of sorts in a giant cicada who takes her flying. Like ET trying to fathom the young humans who protect him, the curious bug learns it has a warm heart and protective instincts, even though its sole function is to mate.
Part of the beauty of this production is its refusal to rely on words. Nothing is over-explained, emotions are only suggested and most is left to the imagination of the audience in Claire Saxe's pithy script. May and Benjamin are played by adult actors Jessie Ellingsen and Peter Andersen who are just right as directed by Michael Brown, never too cutesy or cloying or overdone.
The puppetry used for the cicadas ( giant and otherwise ) effectively draws on hand puppets, stick puppets and Japanese-style Bunraku techniques. It's the work of puppet designer Emily Breyer and puppet director Mike Oleon. My only trifle is the absence of color in the mature cicada puppets, as the little buggers sport red eyes and orange-ribbed wings.
Finally, the musicuncredited, but presumably by sound designer Corey Smithis a huge element in the success of Cicada Summer, delicate, ethereal and sounding chiefly like a celesta, although probably synthesized, speaking volumes when words are unspoken.