THE INSECT PLAY, Pendulum Theatre Company, at the Athenaeum Theatre. Karel Capek is chiefly known today for his play R.U.R. (in which he coined the word “robot”). But this 1921 satire by him and his brother Josef is also historically significant, eerily foreshadowing the Nazi aggression and the totalitarian governments that would ultimately destroy both authors.

The Gulliver in this allegorical tale is a vagrant sleeping by the roadside, dreaming of a world dominated by insects whose behavior bears an uncomfortable resemblance to our own: fickle butterflies play cruelly at romantic dalliance, capitalistic flies and beetles prey ruthlessly on one another under the guise of family values, technology-obsessed ants wage war in the name of peace, and moths are born full of hope only to die quickly, chasing the light.

The Pendulum Theatre Company has demonstrated a talent for making the most of small spaces and budgets. Patti Roeder’s imaginative costumes are delightful, and the actors embrace their multiple roles with vigor and sparkle (Reid Ostrowski and Roeder all but steal the show as a pair of materialistic dung beetles). But the swift pace and cramped stage render the group scenes confusing–in particular the expressionistic ant episode–and seriously impair the physical and psychological distance required of the contemplative vagrant (gamely played by Dan Zielinski). Though the ensemble’s industry helps rescue a difficult script, director Bill Redding may have overestimated his resources this time. –Mary Shen Barnidge