By John Swartz
Corporate malfeasance can be funny. It has to be funny. What else can we do in the face of getting ripped off or controlled on a large scale but find something funny to laugh about the situation?
Of course corporations don’t get to run amok without the aid of politicians. Urinetown (Opera House through to November 17) is the Mariposa Arts Theatre season opener and the heart of the play is about standing up to corporate control and a corrupt politician.
What makes this play so thought provoking is we’re living through what could easily become a similar situation if we aren’t careful.
The play is set in the slum of a large American city. There’s been a drought for 20 years and water conservation measures have been enacted. One measure is outlawing private toilets because they use so much water, or more accurately we use too much water using toilets.
So, think of drinking water (and ignore the fact we live on top of a huge aquifer and next to two lakes), what if a company, say Nestle, convinced the government we shouldn’t’ be allowed to have drinking water piped to our homes and what we can use is rationed – and we have to buy it from only from Nestle (never mind Nestle is trying to corner the market on drinking water now).
When the devil comes, he’ll be dressed in Brooks Brothers, warmly smiling and telling us it’s for our own good, he’s only looking out for us, and in this case that devil is Caldwell B. Cladwell (Ian Munday) the owner of Urine Good Company, or UGC. They operate all the public toilets and he isn’t above paying off the politician (Chris Newton) to get higher rates out of the pockets of people.
Bobby Strong (Josh Halbot) works as a janitor for UBC (naturally there are some who don’t use the service and it has to be cleaned up). Also working the local trough is Penelope Pennywise (Natasha Paquin) who’s highest level of attainment is being a change taker from the schmucks who have to go.
Things are set in motion when Bobby’s father (Jim Dwyer) doesn’t have the cash to go and can’t convince Pennywise to look the other way one more time. She’s not playing along and dad starts railing against the injustice of it all, gets fed up enough he makes a production out of using the nearest wall.
To wrap he monopoly a little tighter, not using the public toilet has also been criminalized (which follows from modern society’s propensity to criminalize minor transgressions). As we have seen from our southern neighbours, the punishment grossly outweighs the crime and many have been taken away and are never seen again; this is what happens to dad.
The common folk have been told the penalty is 20 years in prison, Urinetown. It turns out for many, make that all, it is the rest of their natural lives. Bobby witnesses the whole affair with his dad and feels terrible he didn’t do anything. This is where Hope Cladwell (Olivia Everett) comes in. Bobby and Hope are falling for each other and in her naivety she believes everyone is inherently good and even in sorrow good can emerge, which it does or it would be a short play. Of course she doesn’t have a clue about what her father does, other than run a big company. Bobby’s new optimism opens his eyes and he leads a rebellion.
That’s enough to get you going. As the play progress the parallels to here and now are uncanny considering it was written in 2000. The thought of finding humour and laughing at misery of course has made careers south of the boarder (Colbert, Kimmel, Myers) where worse things happen than in Canada. That’s what makes this play work, we laugh with our cousins because we have similar fears.
We really aren’t far away here in Canada from the baloney happening southward, the condition of drought in the play runs parallel to Canadian’s concern about the changing climate and the realization many of our problems exist only because multinationals have rigged the game.
When you stop making the comparison to real life and focus on the stage, you’ll be suitable impressed with what MAT has done. There is not one thing I can say against the cast or design team. Valerie Thornton directed. She told me she brought the play to MAT and she’s done an excellent job considering her normal function is to be starring on stage in a musical.
The cast she put together is the best I’ve seen from MAT. There are also 6 secondary characters and 11 in the chorus (some of whom step out in minor roles). The thing you’ll notice when all are performing as an ensemble is twofold. The signing is excellent with a clarity and cohesion you might get near the end of a run, not on opening night. The soloists are outstanding and you’ll have your noticed served early with Paquin’s work.
The other thing is the choreography (by Sheri Nichols); the amount of movement is incredibly demanding for a community theater company, and the execution is so high, I don’t know how much better it can get.
They do it all on a stage designed by Brian Halbot. In this case the director and choreographer get to work with a horizontal stage and a vertical stage. They use the third dimension a lot and for the audience this is good because how many times are you going to watch a company do a production number and you can’t see half the cast on the stage floor because they are too deep.
The icing is Chris Newton and Claude Labreque’s lighting design. There are some stunning moments achieved, particularly in the second half, which got applause, just for the lighting effects.
Unfortunately there are some issues with the sound production. There seems to be only one dynamic level for the band, too loud. It’s not an issue when everyone is singing at top volume, but not so good when only a few people are singing, or talking. Making matters worse is the bass is too boomy, which muddies up the words. I think the bass issue is already on their radar because it wasn’t so much a problem in the second half, but it still needs a tweak.
The whole cast is wearing mics and pretty much all the women’s mics need to be pulled back in the mid range frequencies. They sound, when speaking, like they have colds, which doesn’t help the diction. A couple of their mics were very hot too. Of course, some of that could be because of mic placement on the actors and enunciation, but not all of it. I did notice in the second half the worst of the hot mics didn’t seem to be as pronounced, which leads me to believe the mic issues will be smoothed out.
On the whole though, this production is 95% of everything you could want. Oh, wait, the costumes. It’s kind of a cross between Mad Max, Oliver and Les Miz for grime and falling apart, which really sets the tone for the kind of society we are seeing. The hair and makeup drives the point home.
And one more thing, the playwright, Greg Kotis, was having his issues with affording the facilities while visiting Paris on the cheap, and almost at the end of his rope trying to make a career in theater in New York. So the premise is obvious, but you’ll also notice there are a few jabs at other plays. I caught reference bits to A Chorus Line, Les Miz, Fiddler on the Roof, Evita and The Wiz. I’m sure I missed others.
The play is in Gord’s Room instead of the Studio Theatre, so you could decide to go right now and get a ticket. There are Sunday matinees during the run too.
(Photos by Deb Halbot)