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Archive for August 21st, 2011

Fringe 2011 Review: Yeast Nation

Posted by metaphorical on 21 August 2011

Yeast Nation (the triumph of life)

2h 30m
VENUE #9: The Ellen Stewart Theatre @ LA MAMA
Performance reviewed: Sun 21 @ 2:15
Remaining shows: Mon 22 @ 8:15 Tue 23 @ 8 Thu 25 @ 2

Rating: 10
(using the BroadwayWorld rating system of 10=effusive praise; 9=excellent; 7/8=positive with some reservations; 5/6=respectfully unenthused; 3/4=mostly negative; 2=little to recommend; 1=offended, insulted, angered)

“Yeast Nation” is nothing like “Urinetown,” yet it’s destined to be the next “Urinetown.”

Like “Urinetown” it’s an absurd story requiring a simple disbelief easily suspended, and, like “Urinetown,” once suspended, the plot hangs together surprisingly well. (“Urinetown” in particular is as complicated and tight a story as “The Sting” or “Three Days of the Condor”; Yeast Nation gets its science all wrong but freely self-comments to that effect, hilariously.)

The story is of the first colony of yeast—and therefore the first life forms on Earth— living in the ocean, three billion years ago.

The yeast have overdivided, so they are low on salt, their only food (I know, and they know, there are no hydrocarbons in salt) and so the first and eldest, and therefore king, yeast has decreed that they avoid any further (asexual) reproduction; nor are they allowed to travel beyond their prescribed salt-hunting boundaries, nor shall they float to the surface. In a hilarious song, the king extols the virtues of stasis. Yet of course, as in all societies, the center cannot hold and, in Act II, anarchy is loosed upon the yeast world—forbidden asexual reproduction, sibling rivalry, Goneril-like treachery, and treasonous floating to the surface.

Why is the first yeast therefore king? It would have been an interesting question for “Yeast Nation” to explore: What would be the human correlates of a yeast colony’s social structures? “Yeast Nation” goes another way. It dresses the yeasts in togas and robes and a group of them function as a Greek chorus led by Jan the Unknown (one of the conceits of the show is that every character is named Jan—the Elder, the Second, the Sly, the Wiser, etc.).

Rather than concern itself with social structures (as “Urinetown” did) “Yeast Nation” takes on other, arguably broader, themes, notably love. Socrates, in “The Symposium” and elsewhere, proffers the theory that humans originally were male and female combined; having been separated, we spend our lives searching for our other half. In “Yeast Nation” love newly unifies hitherto unjoined entities, it brings together the show’s romantic couples, and it’s the force of nature that impels single-celled organisms to become multi-cellular ones (and yes, that’s yet more crackpot science, as the show acknowledges).

The show’s plot contains jealousies and betrayals of Shakespearean proportion (and more than a few Shakespearean references) but mostly cuts out the middlemen and mines the same mythologies as the Bard did. Jan the Unknown, for example is a sort of Tirelas, that is, a blind prophetess (Harriet Harris, brilliantly).

In one of the show’s many hilarious apologias, “Yeast Nation” notes how badly the Earth’s currently-dominant species is messing things up, and speculates, “If science can’t save them, perhaps a piece of biohistorical musical theatre can.”

If “Urinetown” represented a biocultural future, “Yeast Nation” is exactly the opposite, a bioanthropomorphic past. But Mark Hollmann and Greg Kotis’s new show shares an important quality with the old one: a New York Fringe run that will propel it to further much-deserved success.

[more fringe 2011 reviews here]

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