Courtesy of Maximilian Himpe
We walked into the club — the brightly-lit Saybrook Underbrook Room — with dance music pounding and metallic costumes dotted here and there. Audience members milled about, hesitantly dancing or exchanging glances with one another, uncertain of what to do or what the next 90 minutes would hold. We smiled awkwardly at one another, maybe tried to dance or fill out the questionnaire that asks us, “Have you been crazy today?” This unstructured opening gently encouraged the audience to interact with one another even before the performance began, laying the foundations for a communal exploration of what “utopia” looks like. The preface to the show made it immediately clear: the rest of the performance would be unconventional, by Yale theatre standards.
In this respect, Utopia did not disappoint. It opened with Zoe Ervolino ‘20 and Nia Whitmal ‘21 as an MC duo who warmed up the crowd with some quick-fire banter, including a short-lived engagement with Thomas More’s “Utopia” as a starting point. Neither had read the book. In 90 minutes, the performers walked the audience through a patchwork of different utopian experiences, projecting into the space how many different forms a utopia might take or what an escape into something utopian might look like.
The performance was in cabaret style, with a strong sense of mutual support between the performers as they each shared striking personal visions of utopia. These visions varied between intimate personal memories and more overtly political responses. The space was split between four raised stages, but the performers were by no means limited to these platforms and took liberties to move the audience where they pleased.
Jacqueline Blaska ‘20 gathered us around the campfire in California in bittersweet nostalgia for a home now threatened by wildfire, inviting the audience to sit at her feet while she sung to Angel Osorio Pizarro’s ‘20 guitar. Whitmal brought the audience along on a family roadtrip across America that was delightfully intimate and playful. Ervolino’s delivery of El Necio, followed by the most club-like dance number of the night, brought impressive passion and energy to the space. Focussed more on sharing than on converting the audience to a particular vision of utopia, the most effective performances were those that were prefaced by a story or introduction to the performance that would follow.
The power of the cabaret lay in the unabashed energy and confidence of the performers to share and strive for their vision of utopia. The lines between performer and character became blurred, some performers seeming to more overtly embody a character who was reflecting on utopia, becoming more explicitly performative in their storytelling, whilst others seemed to be themselves in the space. This raises the question of whether the audience was meant to participate in the cabaret, escaping into a performative utopia, or whether they were meant to take these questions into their personal lives after the performance. The show didn’t spoon-feed the audience with a particular “take” on utopia, which was helped by the cabaret structure and club setting that danced between snippets of utopia, including songs, recitations, and even a line-dancing tutorial. Although the explicitly performative nature of each character’s utopian vision might have been distancing at moments, the show was fun to watch.
Max Himpé ‘21, the director of the show, used the Underbrook effectively. A particularly poignant moment came when the performers unfolded the back wall of the Underbrook to reveal a wall of mirrors — a more literal attempt to encourage the audience to reflect on their utopia. There could have been more effort toward incorporating the standing audience into the club culture the performers were building. Although the show did a great job including a variety of interpretations of utopia, I found myself craving a stronger connection from vision to vision, or a narrative arc to the show such that the performance did not become a countdown of individual acts. Ervolino and Whitmal had opened the show so entertainingly and I wished they had continued in their MC roles.
To listen, dance, escape and engage with the politically charged utopian project: that was the promise of the show. The performance went a long way to answer this question, and certainly gave the audience a unique experience of theatre that many are not bold enough to explore at Yale. Perhaps the show might have engaged more with this question of utopia: after dismissing Thomas More, the performances might have turned to other readings or voices barred from the canon who have something to say about utopia,which might have helped ground the audience before lifting them away into the club.
What is your utopia? This is the question that the performance implicitly wants the audience to consider. The show promised to boldly imagine a new future, though I left less with a vision of the future than the sense that I had briefly escaped what was profoundly non-utopian about the current world. It is difficult to criticize a personal vision and perhaps also difficult to connect with such personal stories as were shared in these spaces. Leaving the show, I talked for a good hour with my friends about the experience of the performance and the questions it raised. “Utopia” incorporated a range of perspectives and, putting aside the question of how wide an audience it reached, it expanded the possibilities of theatrical storytelling at Yale.
Alexa Stranger | firstname.lastname@example.org