It should surprise no one that the American theatre tradition is frequently political. Of the 132 shows in the Minnesota Fringe Festivals this year, 22 (about 16%) are self-classified as having political content. Browse their show descriptions and you’ll see that women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, immigration, and refugees are common themes in these political plays. Then there’s the show about…beavers?
Yes, beavers. The Revolt of the Beavers, to be precise. This new adaptation of the infamous Federal Theater Project play by Oscar Saul and Louis Lantz was penned by Kit Bix, who also created last year’s bestselling Fringe adaptation of It Can’t Happen Here. (Disclosure: Bix, a long-time area theatre professional, is also a contributor to the Arts Reader.) This time, it’s not fascism that’s in the crosshairs, but the dangers of anti-union activities in a world with unfettered capitalism.
A fun, topical adaptation of the Federal Theatre Projects’s controversial 1937 “children’s play” about labor exploitation, inequality and the power of collective action. And the importance of unions.
The original The Revolt of the Beavers was staged in 1937 at the Adelphi Theatre in New York, a theatre that had been purchased by the Federal Theatre Project while much of Broadway stood vacant. Revolt ran for one month; audiences and critics were divided on its political messages, but with the federal government the work soon became infamous. The following year, Congressman Martin Dies, Jr. organized what eventually became the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). One of the committee’s targets was the alleged use of the Federal Theatre Project – and plays like The Revolt of the Beavers in particular – for political ends.
With 20/20 hindsight, it’s easy to see how the response to this play has shaped arts funding in the arts today. One soundbyte by theatre critic Brooks Atkinson of the New York Times encapsulates the mania: “Marxism à la Mother Goose.” Moreso than the play’s original pro-union agenda, it was seized upon by critics as an attempt to indoctrinate children in the principles of Marxism. With an increasingly aggressive Soviet Union active in Europe and Asia, the result was political nightshade to the Federal Theatre Project.
Condensing a full-length play to Fringe length and scale inevitably requires a transformation. Bix’s adaptation includes both framing scenes and meta-commentary, and sits more on the “play with songs” side of the spectrum than the full-out (for the time) musical that the original was. The lyrics of two of the original songs are retained, but to new music written by Shelly Domke. The feeling is comedic and (as was the original) subversive.
“The Federal Theatre Project’s Revolt was basically a classic children’s morality tale about rich and poor,” says writer Kit Bix. “About poor oppressed beaver workers who overtake a mean bad beaver boss… My play is not a children’s play and it’s not really a musical. But it is a subversive, politically driven comedy with a highly abridged version of the plot, framed in its historical context.”
Bix emphasizes the importance of the pro-labor message in the play. One of the goals of this adaptation, she states, is to remind people of “the essential role that unions have historically played and the values they represent”, and to inspire them to action. Thirty percent of the play profits will also be given to the American Civil Liberties Union.
Is Revolt right for you? The lyrics to this song will probably tell you all you need to know:
…the chief of all the beavers,
He gets all the bark we make
All he does is pull the levers
While we work until we ache
So we’re poor, unhappy beavers
Working busy as the bees
While he sits and pulls the levers
And gets richer as he please-
Revolt of the Beavers opens August 3 at Mixed Blood Theatre in Minneapolis, MN, and plays through August 11.