Ants Without Pants

Like any nation governed by an imperious busybody, the grassroots environs of Insectavia regularly buzz about with gossip and intrigue. The tiny duchy's ant queen -- who justifies her absolute authority by claiming to be the kingdom's wisest inhabitant -- has offered one-half of the treasury to any segmented, six-legged creature able to provide her with the world's most gorgeous attire. She's also promised an equal sum to any bug-eyed wonder who can convince her that illusion is indeed reality -- news that, naturally, has sent more than a few heads (and thoraxes) spinning.

What the vain royal pain doesn't count on, however, is that evil agents from the neighboring empire of Pestopia have infiltrated her court and are plotting to win the contest by selling the queen a gown that doesn't really exist. Painfully aware that only stupid people or those unfit for high office are unable to see the (invisible) garment, the queen agonizes whether to wear her new "suit" of clothing in a public parade, or risk admitting that she isn't an almighty know-it-all. Either way, the leading character in The Ant Queen¹s New Clothes seems doomed to embarrassment.

The hour-long fable, which is loosely (sometimes too loosely) based on Hans Christian Andersen's classic tale, The Emperor's New Clothes, is being presented at the Arvada Center's outdoor amphitheater. As directed by Christopher Willard, the flouncy show bubbles over with nonstop movement, exaggerated sight gags, arachnid anachronisms and underdeveloped characters -- a numbing combination that obliterates meaning even as it stimulates the senses. In addition, a few songs fail to be effective because the more interesting ditties are truncated and the lyrics of all the tunes are drowned out by tinny, recorded accompaniment.

Thankfully, the actors manage to rise above the befuddling din by sketching out characters that look and sound as though they belong in a vintage cartoon rather than a high-wattage theme park. And it doesn't hurt that they're clad in brightly colored costumes (imaginatively designed by Nicole Hoof) that contrast nicely with the lush setting's backdrop of twisting flower stems and towering ant hills (crafted with painterly flair by Joan Cimyotte).

All the actors display high energy and enthusiasm from the get-go, beginning with Gary Hathaway, who amuses in his two roles as a gossipy bumblebee and erstwhile silkworm bent on winning the queen's design competition. As his fluttering sidekick, Betty, the graceful Karen La-Moureaux does what she can with a part that doesn't figure much in the grand scheme of things. Amanda Kay Berg and Joseph Norton strike up a charming relationship as a spinster princess and inept army recruit. As the perennially insecure Queen Antie, Kathy Kautz is properly overbearing while allowing us a glimpse of her comical need to appear suave and in control. Shelly Bordas delights as Scout, a wannabe soldier who, though possessed of a temerity (not to mention a nagging androgyny) that might preclude him from being a leader in America's scouting corps, has the guts to call things as he sees them. And the bumbling pair of interlopers, Gary Culig and Troy Joe Vincent, is well matched as Mister Fleagle and Skeeter, respectively.

Even though this updated version is a tad long, the Arvada Center's production (underscored here by a few '70s music references that remind adult audience members of passing fads that, like Antie's obsessions, look more ridiculous than hip) amounts to an entertaining, if sprawling, look at the folly of parading one's wisdom.

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Jim Lillie