Producers of the Jean-Paul Sartre play "The Flies" at Brown University will subject the audience to 40,000 fruit flies to bring to life the existentialist work about flies sent to plague the city of Argos in ancient Greece.
Production Workshop, the student-run theater producing the play, built a 10-foot-high by 16-foot by 22-foot "cage" of netting to surround the stage and about 70 audience members, and to keep the flies from infesting the theater.
"There's a sense of containment and quarantine and pestilence, which ties in with the play very well," said James Rutherford, a senior theater arts major who is directing the play.
Rutherford hit on the idea a long time ago, he said, but finally decided to do it when he talked with a friend who studies drosophila fruit flies at Brown's Biomed Center.
She told him it was easy to breed fruit flies, and it was.
They planned to have 30,000 flies at the play's opening Friday, but Rutherford said they got 10,000 extra because the flies reproduced better than anticipated.
The play tells the story of Orestes and Electra, and Rutherford said the flies represent the Greek furies and people's feelings that they are unable to act.
What's it like to be in an enclosed space with 40,000 fruit flies?
"Basically, like a co-op kitchen in the summer," Rutherford said.
Brown required the students to spray the netting with flame retardant to satisfy fire codes, and Rutherford said it was perfectly safe to sit with the bugs for the hour-and-45-minute play.
"They're not drawn to blood or anything, or people or meat. It's like vinegar and grapes and that kind of thing," he said.
Theatergoers know what they're getting into. Rutherford said the flies' presence has been heavily advertised, and anyone who reserves a ticket on a Brown online ticketing service is greeted with a disclosure:
"I am aware that there will be 30,000 live drosophila in the audience area at this production," the message reads, next to a box that must be checked before reserving tickets.
After the production's six-play run ends Monday, the theater will leave the net up and freeze the flies to death by turning down the heat. But Rutherford said people shouldn't feel sorry for them.
"They're vile," he said. "They're really disgusting little creatures."
... judging by the difficulty in getting rid of the darned things from my kitchen at regular intervals, I don't think they've thought this one through ...