Saturday, August 10, 2013

Review: (Toronto) Utopia (Summerworks)

Utopia’s Planet-Sized Crutch
by Ramya Jegatheesan

This is a story that is at once familiar and unfamiliar. Karen (Rebekah Chassé) is a struggling Christmas-tree farmer and single mother in the Maritimes. She and her rebellious teenage daughter Jess (Sam Kamras) clash daily. Zach (Jake Martin), the farmhand cum drug dealer, is Jess’s questionable object of affection. They live in a place of desperation, a place without a future. “Miracles don’t happen to people like us,” says Jess. 

Then comes the twist: an earthen bridge to a pristine utopic planet appears in Karen’s backyard. And suddenly Karen is Queen of Utopia with a whole planet overflowing with riches to guard or cash in on.  
Falkenstein’s Utopia is about dying people and places, a tense parent-child relationship, and existential crises. It is about resource exploitation and protection, teenage pregnancy, and Maritime alienation. It is bursting with everything that it is about. But at its core, it is about the relationship between a mother and her daughter. 

The cast is solid and the lighting effective, but the set is bare bones. Too bare bones for what should make for fantastical visuals. Despite projection screens showing backdrops of scenes on the planet and Karen’s farm, we never see the magical cord attaching the planet to her farm or even what the planet looks like looming in our skies. 

The play plods along and while it sinks itself into the story of the relationships, it loses sight of the elephant in the room – the gaping lush planet in Karen’s backyard. More sexy gimmick than organic plot device, the planet is an awkward presence in a story that closes its eyes to its social, political, scientific and military implications. A bridge in a backyard would not give anyone ownership of a planet in outer space. Nor would anyone be able to ascend that bridge without any gear or protection and return a mere five hours later. It is asking too much of the audience to suspend so much disbelief.  

Utopia invites and explores many meaty questions. What does your geography make of you? What gives a place value? Is a land of concrete more valuable than a place of woods and marshes? How do we care for our places? And for each other? But the question that lingers most is whether Utopia needed the hocus-pocus of an Edenic second planet to tell its story. 

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