Review: Cutting Ball Presents World Premiere of Charles L. Mee’s ‘Utopia’ via Streaming Video (*****)

by Charles Kruger

The cast of Utopia enjoying the simple pleasures of a cup of coffee. From top L to bottom R: Chris Steele, Joel Chapman, Jasmine Milan Williams, Regina Morones, Sharon Shao, Gabriel Montoya, Michele Talgarow, Don Wood, and Chloe Fong.
Reviewed by a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

The play “Utopia” was commissioned by Cutting Ball from playwright Charles L. Mee and has been developed over a two year process. But just as they were ready to go into production, the theatres were closed due to the plague. The company then had to consider whether an internet performance would be possible.

Artistic director Ariel Craft was dubious, at first. “In general,” she told me during a recent interview, ““I’m not enthusiastic about trying to take live theatre to a virtual setting. I’ve seen too many plays wrecked by ZOOM malfunctions.”

But she also felt that Mee’s play was sufficiently unconventional to warrant an unconventional treatment.

Nevertheless, as director, she soon made the decision that a live ZOOM performance was not the way to go. Instead, the company aimed for a kind of cinematic/live theatre hybrid: actors would perform live in their homes on ZOOM, interacting with each other in real time (but not in real space) but the results would be recorded and edited film style. Additionally, it was decided to incorporate a live troupe of dancers (performing together in the outdoors) whose work would be interspersed with the actors’ scenes.

The result is truly delightful.

The premise of “Utopia” is not so much a matter of story telling and plot as variations on a theme. A little girl is taken out for a treat at a cafe, where she and her mother overhear a series of customers describing their ideal (utopian) lives. The customers are each eccentric in manner, costume, and vision and all are entertaining with wide ranging visions of Utopia. The metaphor is brought home by the Waiter who offers the little girl a seemingly endless menu of ice cream flavors. Speaking of “the Waiter”, Don Wood is one of those unusually fine actors who never seem to be acting at all and in this production he does a lot with a little. Other company members are also outstanding, specially the always surprising “queer trans nonbinary performance artist” Chris Steele who presents an extraordinary utopian vision of a life without boundaries. Young Chloe Fong, who has been building quite a career for herself around the Bay area, is excellent, too, as the little girl, Tilly.

Utopian claustrophobia is avoided by including dance interludes, filmed in various San Francisco locations, by the eloquent troupe, RawDance. The coffee shop settings (all created in isolation by the actors’ at home) are scrumptiously decorated with work from Creativy Explored, an organization that specializes in presenting work by artists with developmental disabilities.

The themes of Utopia, presented by actors in isolation, are, one scarecly needs to point out, remarkably resonant during this odd and disturbing period in American history.

Playwright Charles L. Mee and the company at Cutting Ball, under the artistic direction of Ariel Craft, have gone far beyond “making the best of it,” and present us with a high order of theatrical art.

“Utopia” is available from Cutting Ball Theatre via internet stream through November 15, 2020. For further information click here.

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Rating: ***** (For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.)

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“Utopia” by Charles M. Lee. World premiere produced online by Cutting Ball Theatre Company. Director: Ariel Craft. Associate Director: Maya Herbsman. Choreographer: Sound Designer: James Ard. Lighting Designer: Cassie Barnes. Composer: Joel Chapman. Assistant Stage Manager: Toni Lynn Guidry. Costume Designer: Sarah LeFeber. Production Stage Manager: Caitlin McFann. Properties Designer: Adeline Smith.

Cast:

Bob: Joel Chapman. Tilly: Chloe Fong. Herbert: Gabriel Montoya. Evie: Regina Morones. Jennifer: Sharon Shao. Edmund: Chris Steele. Edna: Michelle Talgarow. Harriet: Jasmine Milan Williams. Waiter: Don Wood.

Choreography presented by RAWdance.
Decorative Artwork presented by Creativity Explored.

 

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