“The day is coming when a single carrot, freshly observed, will set off a revolution (Paul Cezanne).” Today, that carrot is Charles Mee’s Utopia Parkway.
On his website, the playwright Mee offers up his scripts with the following: “There is no such thing as an original play.” And that may, or may not, be true. Jesus might have been the last original idea; or he may have been real and only stolen his ideas from others — say Dionysus or Buddha or….
This is true, however: Single Carrot’s Utopia Parkway is a delightfully refreshing evening of musical ritual theatre, with lively movement, absurd absurdist characters, and a bubbling up imagination that sparkles with giggles.
That said, don’t expect a big voice musical and, definitely, don’t expect anything dealing with utopia; but do expect an object lesson on the making of a homicidal mass murderer.
Utopia Parkway has its roots in an ancient Chinese story.Like a fairy tale, it’s bare bones and simply stated.
Its soil is in urban America, however.Like in any gritty multi-ethnic community, people learn to keep their moral distance from one another.
And the only color that everyone understands is green.
Tracey Farrar plays the wealthy Widow who has made a nice life for herself as a money lender. Tall and statuesque, Farrar’s Widow exudes sophistication and dignity.
When a poor older man asks her to raise his daughter for him, she willingly takes on the responsibilities. She not only has the means, but she also has a son with health issues, who will eventually need a wife.
The Girl is played by the multi-ethnic trio of Amanda Marie Campbell, Camirin Farmer, and Lien Le. Each brings her own fierce determination to the part as they step into scenes either solo or as a trio of voices.
When the Widow’s son dies, Widow and Girl are left to fend for themselves in a world of debt and greed.
Into their lives step the sleaziest father-son combo in fairytale literature. The father, played with hips thrust forward by Paul Diem, has arranged to save the life of the Widow as she collects a debt from an angry client.
The son, played by Elliott Rauh with a revolting combination of menace, Will Ferrell, and horny frat boy, offers the Widow a lifetime of security in exchange for her and her daughter’s hands in marriage.
Although the Widow at first rejects their offer, eventually she is swayed by a combination of longing, fear, and intimidation.
A chorus of Nathan Fulton, Jonathan Jacobs, Nina Kauffman, Elizabeth Ung, and Yiqing Zhao rounds out Utopia’s cast of carrots, as they take on druggist, neighbor, judge, and bystander; they bring great delight to each role and help reveal the nature of the world.
Cast members double as musicians and percussionists with Zhoa on piano, Fulton on banjo and guitar, Jacob on guitar, and Ung on Upright bass and flute; but everyone chips in at one time or another to bring Faye Chiao’s lively songs to life. Effective musical direction is given by Britt Olsen-Ecker.
Genievieve de Mahy directs the production in-the-round, with a set designed by Michael Kirby which looks very much like a child’s graffiti-filled urban playground complete with mini skateboarding ramps.The set doubles, however, as a ritual circle, with incense burning center stage and chants to a dying civilization.
De Mahy has wisely elected to keep the production very much in the style of rough theatre, street theatre, agitprop — a community, if you will, performing an ancient tale for a hungry-for-answers audience.
You will find nothing slick and glossy here: it’s the urban down-under, a community held together not by high tech and gentrification but by sheer grit and joy. The costumes by Heather C. Jackson very much capture that vibrant sense of street, and Rebecca Wolf’s lighting design adds shadow and beams.
Mee’s lyrics are fresh and Chiao’s tunes only elevate them. One is reminded of children on the playground singing and romping around with dance-like movements, using the various levels of the set to great effect. Their rhythms are infectious and serve to heighten the feeling of ritual reenactment.
And that is, after all is said and done, what Utopia Parkway is: a ritual yearning for a better world.
At the recent Super Bowl, America was once again reminded that at every such super sporting event the number of child sex slaves imported into the host city skyrockets. It seems that at such high profile activities the men like their girls young and submissive.
In fact, recent studies have shown that modern slavery, much of it sexual in nature, is far worse than it has ever been. Because the slave today has less value than the slave of yesteryear, slaves are simply used up and discarded; and new slaves are brought in to fulfill the expectations of owners.
And that is only the tip of the iceberg, as epidemics in sexual assault in the military and on college campuses are also spiraling out of control.
Utopia Parkway does not address any of these issues directly, and the joy its ritual of renewal and revenge elicits belies any such thematic horror story; but this reviewer could help but contemplate a musing that an old friend once told me:
“What would happen if chickens had machine guns?”
And that old friend was a South African anti-apartheid revolutionary.
And eventually all the chickens will be armed.
Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.