Venue Problems Aside, Stillpointe's URINETOWN Flush With Possibility
Every so often a production comes along that has an enormous amount going for it, but you cannot enjoy it much because of technical problems that tend to overwhelm an audience's capacity for pleasure. Unfortunately that is the story with Urinetown, a musical now being revived by Stillpointe Theatre in a space in the United Methodist Church at Mount Vernon Square. Here, at least on press night, both problems were consequences of the space in which the show was being staged: the acoustics were unspeakably bad and the air was almost unendurably hot.
In the high-ceilinged upper-floor auditorium, the voices of the performers could ricochet off hard surfaces, die out long before they reach the ears of the audience, and/or be drowned out by the orchestra, which was frequently too loud. There were whole minutes when I could confidently identify no more than one of three words sung. I checked with other audience members to be sure it wasn't just my aged ears doing their aged thing, and I was assured that others were having the same problems. I greatly missed the soundscape of the room at St. Mark's where Stillpointe's Trouble in Tahiti played just a few months back.
This is not the first time a local company has confronted sound issues trying to play in unconventional spaces. Baltimore's Cohesion Theatre Company had a similar stretch where it staged plays upstairs at Church on the Square, and all that can be said is it was a mercy they later found a venue without audibility issues. I suspect the Baltimore Shakespeare Festival went out of business because of St. Mary's Church in Hampden, where intelligibility goes to die. Conversely, Compass Rose Theater in Annapolis, without its regular stage, recently put on A Chorus Line in a hotel ballroom and it worked perfectly.
Just as bad as the sound in this case, moreover, the room was stifling. We were assured when we came in that there would be air conditioning in the performance space. I don't know whether there simply wasn't any air after all (at one point there also appeared to be a power outage on the stage lights circuit) or whether there was some but it was just not remotely adequate. All I can say for sure was that the audience and the performers were all drenched in perspiration. It may or may not have been a coincidence that the programs came in the form of paddle fans. And it would have been even worse for the audience were the bar not selling vodka-infused lemonade.
Apart from that, Mrs. Lincoln, as the joke goes, how was the show? I think I would have loved it. Urinetown is a much-celebrated (three 2002 Tonys) riff on the conceit that in a water-starved future environment, the water supply might need to be protected by tightly controlling urination, which would be allowed only upon payment of a fee. Owing to an unholy alliance of politicians and plutocrats, "it's a privilege" - no longer a right - "to pee." Transgressors, those who eliminate in forbidden places, will be hustled off to "Urinetown." This destination is only vaguely understood at the beginning of the action but is quite evidently ominous.
In other words, this could be an exploration of how evil corporations exploit natural resources and trample human rights in honor of the almighty dollar, and it would probably be quite effective as the vehicle for that simple message. It is something of a truism, however, that in a drama of ideas, the disputants should be evenly matched, so that at the end either party could plausibly be said to have won the argument. For most of its length, the "good guys," the ones who regard peeing as a human right, seem to have the best of the dispute. Then, surprisingly, in the last ten minutes, the "bad guys" get a potent response, although it arises from the unique factual premises of the show. Still, the audience is left with more to think about than might have seemed likely through most of the going.
Not only was the premise intriguing, then, but the treatment, and particularly the talent Stillpointe brought to this performance, seemed quite promising. As hard as it often was to work out exactly what was being said and sung, the characters certainly had the capacity to intrigue us. We started out with Officer Lockstock (Danielle Robinette), who doubled as the narrator and the chief constable charged with maintaining urinary law and order, whatever moral compromises that might entail. Lockstock carried out exposition duties ("Too Much Exposition") with the assistance of Little Sally (Caitlin Rife), a streetwise urchin with a comically sunny disposition given the grimness of the world depicted. (Comedy in the face of outrageous injustice, not to mention Kurt Weill-ish melodies, are the traits that quickly got this show described as Brechtian.) I could argue that the nontraditional casting of female performers as Lockstock and Lockstock's sidekick Barrel (Meghan Taylor) and putting them in "uniforms" that somewhat resembled clown costumes, complete with fright wig hair, marred the also arguably gendered political message of this production, but there is no denying that Robinette especially had the physical and vocal wherewithal to convey Lockstock's weary menace, and much of it came across despite the ludicrous costume. And she certainly could deliver "Cop Song."
To this mix add two characters apparently imported from The Cradle Will Rock, evil industrialist Caldwell B. Cladwell (Christopher Kabara) and corrupt politician Senator Fipp (Robert Harris), the love interests Hope (Sarah Burton) and Bobby (Brice Guerriere), and a sardonic keeper of the urinals who seems like a close relative of warden Momma Morton from Chicago, Penelope Pennywise (Caitlin Weaver). The creators of the show, Mark Hollmann and Greg Kotis, knew enough to take these intentionally stereotypical characters and still endow them with enough personality to keep us invested in them as characters (even without understanding every word they said). And, so far as I could discern, they one and all sang admirably to boot, especially Hope and Penny, who each had some belting to do, and did it well. Burton also impressed me by spending some of Act One and much of Act Two bound and gagged - and managed to churn out a steady stream of hilarious physical comedy nonetheless.
The production I attended, then, was one in which everything seemed to proceed swimmingly, except that it was inaudible and everyone was sweltering. If only a show with these possibilities had been in a better venue! I am sure director Grace Anastasiadis had much to do with the swimmingly-ness of it all, and that she deserved much credit. And I can only hope that when it comes to venue, Stillpointe will follow the advice of Bobby as he assumes control of a people's uprising: "Run, Freedom! Run!" Where to run to for freedom from these problems might not be such an important question; almost anywhere else would be better.
Urinetown, music, book and lyrics by Mark Hollmann and Greg Kotis, directed by Grace Anastasiadis, through July 14, presented by Stillpointe Theatre at Mt. Vernon Place United Methodist Church, 10 East Mt. Vernon Place, Baltimore, MD 21202. Tickets $30 at https://www.stillpointetheatre.com . Adult subject matter, vulgar language, stylized violence, sexual behavior.