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Vanishing honeybees theme for Piti Theatre of Shelburne

  • Jonathan Mirin, and Godelieve Richard rehearing To Bee Or Not To Bee with  Carrie Ferguson on the piano Sunday afternoon in Mirin's and  Richard's home in Shelburne.

    Jonathan Mirin, and Godelieve Richard rehearing To Bee Or Not To Bee with Carrie Ferguson on the piano Sunday afternoon in Mirin's and Richard's home in Shelburne. Purchase photo reprints »

  • Jonathan Mirin,  Carrie Ferguson and Godelieve Richard with puppets used in  To Bee Or Not To Bee Sunday afternoon in Mirin's and  Richard's home in Shelburne.

    Jonathan Mirin, Carrie Ferguson and Godelieve Richard with puppets used in To Bee Or Not To Bee Sunday afternoon in Mirin's and Richard's home in Shelburne. Purchase photo reprints »

  • Jonathan Mirin,rehearing To Bee Or Not To Bee Sunday afternoon in Mirin's and  Richard's home in Shelburne.

    Jonathan Mirin,rehearing To Bee Or Not To Bee Sunday afternoon in Mirin's and Richard's home in Shelburne. Purchase photo reprints »

  • Jonathan Mirin, and Godelieve Richard  rehearing To Bee Or Not To Bee Sunday afternoon in Mirin's and  Richard's home in Shelburne.

    Jonathan Mirin, and Godelieve Richard rehearing To Bee Or Not To Bee Sunday afternoon in Mirin's and Richard's home in Shelburne. Purchase photo reprints »

  • Jonathan Mirin, Godelieve Richard and Carrie Ferguson rehearing To Bee Or Not To Bee Sunday afternoon in Mirin's and  Richard's home in Shelburn.

    Jonathan Mirin, Godelieve Richard and Carrie Ferguson rehearing To Bee Or Not To Bee Sunday afternoon in Mirin's and Richard's home in Shelburn. Purchase photo reprints »

  • Jonathan Mirin, and Godelieve Richard rehearing To Bee Or Not To Bee with  Carrie Ferguson on the piano Sunday afternoon in Mirin's and  Richard's home in Shelburne.
  • Jonathan Mirin,  Carrie Ferguson and Godelieve Richard with puppets used in  To Bee Or Not To Bee Sunday afternoon in Mirin's and  Richard's home in Shelburne.
  • Jonathan Mirin,rehearing To Bee Or Not To Bee Sunday afternoon in Mirin's and  Richard's home in Shelburne.
  • Jonathan Mirin, and Godelieve Richard  rehearing To Bee Or Not To Bee Sunday afternoon in Mirin's and  Richard's home in Shelburne.
  • Jonathan Mirin, Godelieve Richard and Carrie Ferguson rehearing To Bee Or Not To Bee Sunday afternoon in Mirin's and  Richard's home in Shelburn.

Apples, nuts, avocados, blueberries, strawberries, citrus fruit, soybeans, broccoli, cucumbers ... how’d you like to do without any of these, and scores of other types of food, in your diet?

That’s a question Piti Theatre is asking with their new play, “To Bee or Not to Bee,” which will be staged Saturday afternoon at the Northampton Center for the Arts. It’s the Shelburne company’s take on a mysterious problem threatening an enormous amount of the food supply: the disappearance of the honeybees that pollinate many of our crops.

Piti Theatre — “piti” is an ancient Indian word that means joy or rapture — is built around the husband-and-wife team of Jonathan Mirin and Godeliève Richard, whose goal is to use the stage both to entertain and to raise awareness of topical issues. In their artistic look at what’s broadly known as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), they’re tackling an issue of great concern to scientists, beekeepers, farmers and agricultural officials alike.

“Bees pollinate about a third of our food supply,” Mirin said. “They’re pretty essential.” Their dwindling numbers, he added, “is one of the more serious but less well-known environmental stories.”

As Mirin observes, U.S. beekeepers lost an estimated 50 percent of their bees from 2006 to 2007, and the losses have continued at somewhat smaller percentages in more recent years. Like something from a science fiction tale, whole hives of bees have vanished without a trace, the bodies of the insects never found. And the problem isn’t restricted to the United States. For instance, Mirin says, 50 percent of Swiss honeybees disappeared last winter.

Researchers tracking the declines suspect a number of culprits: insecticides, loss of habitat, pollution or even simple weariness. Many commercial hives are typically trucked across the country, for months at a time, so that bees can pollinate crops in different states. A new study in 2012 pointed to a class of widely used pesticides known as neonicotinoids, suggesting bees that ingest them from plant pollen lose their homing instinct and can’t find their way back to their hives.

Whatever the reason, Mirin says, it’s a serious issue, with food and jobs at stake. But it also lends itself well to a story that children in particular can understand, he says, given the sort of imagery and sensory feel that bees project.

Ultimately, he said, “Our play is really about hope, about being part of a grassroots movement to find a solution to the problem. ... We’re trying to provide an emotional experience about it.”

In a bad mood

“To Bee or Not to Bee” dramatizes the issue with a story line that incorporates humor, puppetry, music, dance and audience participation. The one-hour play centers on the travails of Farmer James (Mirin), who’s lost his bees and has nothing but gruel to eat. People from the nearby town (the audience) have arrived outside the farm to protest, chanting “There’s no good food, we’re in a bad mood.”

A traveler, played by Richard, returns to the farm in search of the delicious honey she remembers getting there when she was a child. Instead of honey, she discovers a despairing Farmer James. Refusing to let him wallow in his grief, she convinces him to explain what happened, and the story unfolds in part through the use of puppets the farmer has been making to while away his time.

Among various problems, it transpires that a slick salesman convinced Farmer James to cut his lawn and treat it with chemicals, depriving his bees of natural food from flowers and weeds. Another salesman got him to feed his bees cheap high fructose corn syrup instead of honey during the winter, which researchers also believe has contributed to CCD.

Mirin and Richard are joined onstage by Northampton singer/songwriter Carrie Ferguson, who composed the music for the play — Mirin wrote most of the lyrics — and performs it in the role of the Piano Lady. She also provides key voice-overs, like that of the lawn-care specialist, who at one point intones, “A lawn is a reflection of the soul — nice green lawn, nice green soul.”

Ferguson says she’s enjoyed the experience, both as a “nice change of pace” from her normal schedule and for the play’s environmental message: “It’s a good way, a fun way, to approach a serious subject.”

On one tune, Ferguson hammers out a boogie-woogie beat and sings as Mirin and Richard, with bee puppets made from corn cobs, bob and shake to imitate the excited “dance” that bees do to alert one another to a source of food.

Eventually, Farmer James and the traveler realize that only by reviving the land will the bees be able to return, and the farm to prosper again. That discovery segues into a real-world grassroots campaign that Mirin and Richard have started called “10 Percent for the Bees,” in which audience members, at the end of the show, will be given seeds for planting bee gardens — flowers and plants that serve as food sources for the insects.

The campaign also encourages replanting 10 percent of lawns with bee-friendly habitat and not using chemically based products of lawns. Mirin says local partners in the campaign include the environmental group Greening Greenfield and two businesses specializing in organic seeds and herbs.

Overseas engagements

Mirin and Richard, who is originally from the French-speaking region of Switzerland, formed Piti Theatre — what they call an “interdisciplinary performance troupe” — in 2004. They’ve performed throughout the Northeast U.S. and in Switzerland. Two of their previous works have been nominated for an Independent Reviewers of New England Award.

Mirin, the chief playwright, and Richard, a choreographer and designer, staged a French version of their current play — “Etre ou ne pas être une abeille” — last fall in Switzerland, and they plan to return to Switzerland this summer for another engagement.

Mirin notes that “To Bee or Not to Bee,” an earlier version of which they debuted in Amherst last year, is an extension of an environmental theme he and Richard explored in “Elmer and the Elder Tree,” a 2009 play about an unemployed city man who rediscovers the beauty of nature. He says he first began thinking of “Bee” as a play about lawns, something that would address “this idea that you’re supposed to keep your lawn perfectly manicured, which is not a friendly environment for bees.”

Though he and Richard have also done a few plays for adults, Mirin says their prime target audience is families, with content that can keep both adults and children engaged.

“Some humor, some music, some dance and some serious ideas — that can make for a pretty good story,” he said.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

“To Bee or Not to Bee” will be performed Saturday at 2 p.m. at the Northampton Center for the Arts. Tickets cost $8 for adults; $4 for children ages 3 to 12; free for children under 3. Call 584-7327 for more information or visit ptco.org.

Saturday’s performance will be followed by a tasting of raw local, national and international brands of honey, offered by the honeybee-centric boutique Follow the Honey of Harvard Square.

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