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An Entomologist’s Review of ‘An Entomologist’s Love Story’

Scenes from An Entomologist's Love Story

In An Entomologist’s Love Story, now showing at the San Francisco Playhouse, insect mating rituals stand as metaphors for human dating behavior, and the entomological themes and humor hold up under inspection, says entomology Ph.D. student Emily Bick, who caught a performance in May. (Photo credit: San Francisco Playhouse)

By Emily Bick

A new play, titled An Entomologist’s Love Story, shows that life imitates art and art imitates life, with insect mating rituals serving as a proxy for human dating behavior.

Emily Bick

Emily Bick

While the public will enjoy the biting wit and entertaining original perspective of the play, now showing in its world premiere at the San Francisco Playhouse through June 23, the entomologically inclined will enjoy it on a whole different level.

The well-known antagonistic insect mating behavior of bed bugs’ traumatic insemination, praying mantids’ sexual cannibalism, and honey bees’ mating plugs are all accurately described and then used to represent adversarial (human) dating behavior. Fireflies’ bioluminescence, meanwhile, is cast in a romantic light.

The play brims with entomological humor, from anthropomorphizing bed bugs to a running joke that sometimes volunteers actually make life harder for researchers. While the public will be entertained by the gross descriptions of entomological behavior (pun intended), only we insect scientists will know that the “Lou” the protagonists keep referring to is actually Dr. Louis Sorkin of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City (and that, yes, he does keep a bed bug colony there). Or, for those of us who have been lucky enough to take a tour, you know the Museum’s offices really are that difficult to get to.

Entomologist-specific social challenges in a world where few know the word “entomologist” were even addressed. Like when a love interest’s entire entomology knowledge base came from the movie Silence of the Lambs. (“We have so much in common,” says the male protagonist. “Like a love of exoskeletons,” the female protagonist counters.) The social awkwardness of the male protagonist is a bit of an exaggeration; in my experience, my classmates and I overcame the communication hurdle prior to graduate school.

I was thoroughly impressed with the attention to field specific detail in An Entomologist’s Love Story. The protagonists are not merely entomologists in name: Their pedigrees are accurate, and scientific perspective drives the show. From the Cornell University Cabinet Insect Drawers to the dissecting microscopes semi-randomly strewn on benchtops, the set design mimics the American Museum of Natural History lab space. The transitions between scenes are facilitated by classical textbook drawings of insect type specimens. Even the characters’ pronunciation of family and species names is accurate!

These accuracies are in part due to playwright Melissa Ross’s time volunteering at the American Museum of Natural History after the play’s commission from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, through the Manhattan Theater Club. Working under Dr. Katja Seltmann, Ross met Sorkin, who was, as Ross describes, “kind enough” to show her his bed bug colony. Additionally, the production consulted with entomologists at the California Academy of Sciences (Drs. Lauren Esposito, Brian L. Fisher, Christopher C. Grinter, Dave Kavanaugh, Jere Schweikert, and Michelle Trautwein), accounting for the precision of the set design, diction, and scientific point of view.

Overall, An Entomologist’s Love Story juxtaposes a range of complex human dating behaviors with a humorous yet biologically accurate description of example insect species’ mating behavior. From an entomologist’s perspective, I highly recommend seeing An Entomologist’s Love Story if you are or will be in the San Francisco area before June 23.

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An Entomologist’s Love Story

San Francisco Playhouse

Emily Bick is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of California, Davis. She received two previous entomology degrees from Cornell University (B.S.) and University of California, Davis (M.S.). Additionally, she is a Board Certified Entomologist and holds a Linnaean Games championship and is delighted to be able to list “published theater critic” to her resume. Email: enbick@ucdavis.edu

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