Mari Nelson as Miss Pennywise (right), with Mikko Juan as lead character Bobby Strong, in the ACT/5th Avenue coproduction of 'Urinetown'. Photo by Jeff Carpenter.

Our Modern Dystopias, pt. 1: ‘Urinetown’

For two very different productions, comedy exists in the strangest of places. Urinetown (ACT/5th Avenue) is on now through 6/2 (extended).

For NWT’s review of Pony World’s Language Rooms (thru 5/4), go here.

 

In Urinetown and Language Rooms, two very different shows grapple with similar themes, showing not-too-far-off modern dystopias in which the bounds of truth and loyalty are tested. Each does so with varying levels of success.

I’m sad to say that while Urinetown had considerable hype (not to mention budget), it failed to deliver much to my tastes. Burying the substance in favor of the self-aware eye-rolling humor (which is quickly wearying), the show — or at least this production of it — takes a fast turn to the insipid and only gets worse.

But I’ll note from the start that I’m an outlier: virtually every other reviewer in town is lapping up this production. So if you happened to enjoy it, you’re in good company. If not — well, this one’s for the rest of us.

Urinetown is a musical by Mark Hollmann and Greg Kotis. This production, held in the Falls Theatre at ACT, is a coproduction with the 5th Avenue Theatre. It’s directed by Bill Berry.

The premise of Urinetown is intriguing: through corporate rule and extensive surveillance, the public is no longer allowed to do in their homes what was once considered a private matter: relieve themselves. You must stand in line and pay a toll in order to go. If you can’t pay, you either dance til you explode trying to get together the funds, or you try to break the rules by finding a bush for free and get carted off to the mysterious horror of a place called Urinetown.

Urinetown the setup has a lot going for it. It calls into question the state of corporate rule and the law’s beholden to it (through property rights, public nuisance and vagrancy, etc.), and challenges the very legitimacy of governance. It strikes in general terms at the absurdity of controlling the body, charging for the involuntary (state of healthcare, anyone?), and policing where people pee. (As to the latter point: in Urinetown they seem to have figured it out much better than America’s present and history, as there all genders, and races, wait in the same line.) It considers class divisions — the poor at the center of Urinetown have the grossest bathrooms, and no doubt struggle the most to afford to use them, while we don’t even hear about the well-off complaining about the order of things — as well as competition vs. cooperation within that lowest strata.

The set is remarkably simple: a mangled pile of toilets upstage center; and three connected aerial ramps leading down, from a mysterious catwalk in the ceiling. It’s ominous, perhaps because it feels so stark while the ramps tower above. Even in its simplicity, its structure suggests an exciting show is in store.

The action and arc of Urinetown, in contrast, are predictable and go nowhere fast. Fed up with this order of things, a mob of The People faces off against a money-hungry corporation — called Urine Good Company — which controls the peeing, the law, and the law enforcement. The bloodthirsty owner/ruler has a naive daughter who falls in love with the uprising’s ringleader and sings insipid songs about it. Predictable things happen, The People sort of win, but then, in something of a twist, they’re told they’re doomed anyway. Inspiring stuff.

Among other features: a clunky narrator who doles out too much exposition, enthusiastically, while mocking his own over-exposition; non-catchy songs; dull choreography; a title suggesting an edgier show than it is; a narrative that’s really only edgy if it’s 2001, back when Y2K was still a recent threat.

So was there anything redeeming? With a large cast with this many credits among them, it’d be near impossible to say no. But that’s part of the problem. Even looking at the cast list before attending, I thought this looked like a strange hodgepodge — like casting spun a wheel and plucked out a random assortment of supporting actors from major productions in town and then figured out where to put them. Does it work? In theory. But the characters never have any chemistry with each other, appearing instead to play weird standalone roles, and for a piece based around solidarity (for good or for evil) that just doesn’t get it very far.

The only character given any depth is Miss Pennywise, and for that it’s a blessing that Mari Nelson was cast in the role. Nelson has a rare combination of a strong voice, a hardened world-weary stage face, a bold sense of purpose, and a generosity of spirit that usually emanates from her, whether she’s tasked with a Shakespearean double-header of an epic (for which she won a Gregory), a one-night reading, a one-song bit in a cabaret, or this — the gatekeeper/toll collector at the “poorest, filthiest urinal in town.”(In an interview with Seattle Gay Scene, here, she describes digging into the role, and describes her character: “I think she’s a bad-ass with an enormous heart.” It’s a manner in which I always, at least after seeing Bringing Down the House, connect with Nelson herself.)

Sarah Russell and Andi Alhadeff had ensemble roles but made the most of them, and were fun to watch.

Kurt Beattie may have been a fine choice for this, but his makeup and costuming were not: he looked like Dracula (which ACT is putting on later this year — were they testing a look?) meets the dad in the Richie Rich comic strip. And while I guess that’s about what the character amounts to — an obscenely wealthy bloodsucker — an interpretation that literal here just doesn’t fit. And his performance of it borders on slapstick.

The leads were unfortunately forgettable, and had virtually no chemistry. (Was that the real reason he had to kidnap her? There’s another reason not to like the character.) Did the Rich Daddy’s Girl and the assistant toilet attendant beat the odds and get together and live happily and predictably ever after? Who cares?

Honestly, I expected I would. With interests in criminal system reform and legal, political and economic theory, and no hang-ups around bathroom humor, the premise of Urinetown seemed right up my alley. But it didn’t go far enough, or deep, into anything. Did it just get dated too quickly by the accelerating absurdity in real life? Perhaps.

Another reason for the high hopes: I enjoyed another one in the works by the same authors, in the Village Theatre Beta Series developmental production of ZM, about zombie-inducing fast food meals.

Whether the blame lies with a bummer of a script or with the lack of vision in direction, or if I’m just a sourpuss, I don’t know. As I mentioned early on, other press folks apparently like it. A lot of audience members, meanwhile, seemed indifferent at the performance I saw (aside from people making predictable bathroom jokes loudly in the actual bathroom).

I’ve never seen Urinetown before, so I have nothing to compare this production to. But it didn’t feel at home in this theatre, and particularly with this much gloss on the production but so little going on with the set. Urinetown is, I suspect, much more at home in a smaller, fringier theatre. And if it’s brought to a big production — as it has been, many times — I would hope they’d go all the way. Make it dank. Make it spooky. Make troughs of mystery liquid running everywhere. Go wild! We’re in a place obsessed with the bathroom!

This did neither fringe nor huge production, so it instead felt like what it was: a stage with a lot of talent, doing staged things on stage.


R. Barron reviewed arts behind the scenes (awards, grants, etc.), before writing for Seattle Gay Scene & NWTheatre.org. Passions include theatre, new works, and arts showcasing underrepresented voices.