Consider the Yeasts

17. October, 2014 Theater No comments

Ray of Light Theatre has managed to do something pretty remarkable with its 2014 season; there are almost no human characters in it at all. I say “almost” only because there was briefly a human narrator (Morgan Freeman, actually) in Triassic Parq this June, but other than that it was all dinosaurs. And now Ray of Light goes back even further down the evolutionary ladder to a time when the only life on earth was salt-sucking yeasts.

Courtney Merrell and Kevin Singer in Yeast Nation (the triumph of life). Photo by Erik Scanlon.

Courtney Merrell and Kevin Singer in Yeast Nation (the triumph of life). Photo by Erik Scanlon.

Yeast Nation (the triumph of life) has a pretty impressive pedigree. It’s a new musical by Tony Award-winning Urinetown creators Greg Kotis (book and lyrics) and Mark Hollmann (music and lyrics), who worked with the small San Francisco company on sprucing up the musical for its West Coast premiere. Considering that their previous endeavor was a musical about peeing that originated at the New York International Fringe Festival, it should be no surprise that their follow-up is similarly offbeat. This one also started at the NY Fringe, back in 2011.

It all takes place in the court of supposedly the first lifeform on earth, Jan-the-Elder, played by Danny Cozart as an imperious and out-of-touch king. Back in the good old days of “the do-as-you-please” program, Jan and its offspring ate as much salt as they wanted, consequently reproducing asexually at an unrestrained rate. Now salt is scarce, the yeasts are starving, so Jan-the-Elder has introduced an austerity program of zero population growth, strict rationing of salt (exempting senior members of the royal family) and an absolute ban on rising from the depths toward the surface. All of these strictures are issues for the other yeasts, but especially being forbidden to rise, because upward is where new foodstuffs, new light, new life and new possibilities all lie.

Narrated by Heather Orth as the blind prophet Jan-the-Unnamed, always surrounded by her chorus of devoted acolytes, the musical is amusing mostly in its portentous grandiloquence, played as if this were the most solemn and important historical epic ever made—or “piece of bio-historical musical theater,” as Jan-the-Unnamed puts it. Refreshingly, one of the Unnamed’s chorus members occasionally questions the entire premise, suggesting that the whole idea of salt-eating yeasts as the first life on earth may in fact be balderdash. “Is it really true that there were no stories before this one?” the Unnamed is asked. “None worth musicalizing,” she replies.

ROLT artistic director Jason Hoover really plays up the hyperserious melodrama in his staging, with a tone more like Les Miserables than, well, Triassic Parq. It is interesting, though, that both Ray of Light musicals this season are not only populated by prehistoric (and prehuman) species but center around a plot of the new generation flouting strict societal orthodoxy to, among other things, reproduce. Though when I put it that way, I suppose it could also be said of Footloose.

The entire cast is clothed by Amanda Lee Angott in plain off-white robes, but with a light shining though their chests that changes colors from time to time, possibly because of mood. Angrette McCloskey’s inventive set gives a sense of the underwater surroundings with giant pillowy amoeboid shapes.

In the beginning, the king’s son Jan-the-Wretched (a defiant Roy Eikleberry) rebels against these strictures and is condemned to death—and as with any martyr to a cause, his execution doesn’t quash the dissent but only fires it up. His grieving child Jan-the-Sweet (Courtney Merrell in wholesome heroine mode) is embittered against the ruling regime, and the king’s heir Jan-the-Second-Oldest (a callow and impulsive Kevin Singer) becomes determined to rebel, if only to impress the Sweet one he loves. But the king’s doctrinaire vizier Jan-the-Wise (a wonderfully officious and sinister Mischa Stephens) also has the hots for Jan-the-Sweet, which bodes ill for everybody concerned. Add to the mix the heir’s scheming and power-hungry but cute-as-a-button little sister Jan-the-Sly (Teresa Attridge, with a squeaky voice and gusto to spare); the always hungry and easily manipulated Jan-the-Famished (innocently pliable Juliana Lustenader); and a couple of wild-card newspawns (near-feral Mary Kalita and goofily boyish David Glazer) and you have a recipe for all kinds of havoc.

The grave, deadpan tone accentuates the humor of some of the gags, even ones as sophomoric (and thus oft-repeated) as “this unusually large salt crystal, also known as a fatty…from my private stash.” At the same time, though, it’s only mildly funny, depending on repeated reminders of its unconventional time, place and organisms for most of its humor (“Love? Here? In the primordial soup?”), and amusingly awkward constructions like “I know that your lies are lies” for the rest. Accompanied by an unseen and muffled rock band led by musical director Ben Prince, the relentlessly bombastic songs are generally pleasant, with few memorable standouts. Favorites include the anthemic “Stasis Is the Membrane,” the Unnamed’s catchy lament “Love Equals Pain” and the peppy closer “The World Won’t Wait”

It’s the Jesus Christ Superstar of single-celled organisms, essentially, and is humorous in exactly the same way. Only in this case it’s actually intentional.

Yeast Nation (the triumph of life)
Through November 1
Ray of Light Theatre
Victoria Theatre
2961 16th Street
San Francisco, CA

Show #95 of 2014, attended October 3.


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