Charles Mee’s Virtual Play ‘Utopia’ Brims with Imagination and Possibility

Chloe Fong digs into an ice cream sundae as Michelle Talgarow and Don Wood look on in Cutting Ball Theater's ‘Utopia,’ a new play by Charles Mee. (Courtesy of Cutting Ball Theater)

What makes a “utopia?” Is it a place where we can be free to be ourselves, or a place where we can become our better versions? And what is better? Is the purpose of utopia to give us something to build towards, or is it something to dream into existence? At a time when both building and dreaming feel essential, there may be no better moment than to ponder the attainability of a utopian ideal.

Joining a veritable pantheon of utopia-themed entertainment currently streaming, Charles Mee’s newest play, Utopia, opened Oct. 16. Commissioned and presented online by Cutting Ball Theater, and directed by Ariel Craft, Utopia gives audiences a window into a world much like our own but just a bit extra.

The ensemble cast of Cutting Ball Theater's ‘Utopia,’ by Charles Mee. (Courtesy of Cutting Ball Theater)

To sit with the world of Utopia—as with Mee’s other work—is to sit with the idea of expansiveness. A spiraling outward that connects small dots of intimacy, pushing them ever further. A world that begs the viewer to consider love, joy and emotional fulfillment as theatrical topics as “big” and “important” as ones of anger, fear and disillusionment. A world where control is never the point, only iteration.

Within Utopia, Mee borrows and remixes from his own past works—including Our Times, Tunnel of Love and Wintertime—creating a resonance that spans years and distance and disciplines. In some ways it’s reminiscent of his 2019 collaboration with Anne Bogart and Elizabeth Streb, Falling and Loving, itself a remix of past work. This continuous revisiting and revising of the same text and tropes feels familiar and necessary, both as an artistic process and a life practice. What Utopia seems to suggest is that the work is never really done. The conversation is never really over. The ideal—whatever that might mean—is never fully attained.

Chris Steele as Edmund in a noir sequence in Cutting Ball Theater's ‘Utopia,’ by Charles Mee. (Courtesy of Cutting Ball Theater)

If that lack of resolution produces anxiety for you, what Utopia brings to the table is a buoyant exploration of possibility, frequently turning to the familiar for inspiration. In a time of heightened anxiety and socially distant isolation, how novel and welcome it feels to “sit” in a “cafe” with actors Michelle Talgarow and Chloe Fong. To eavesdrop on the burgeoning romance between Jasmine Milan Williams and Regina Morones, listen to a long list of impossible ice creams flavors delivered with jolly sincerity or bite with gusto at a cartoon croissant with an audible crunch. Or to hear the words of Joe Brainard recited, notable for infusing the everyday with elements of the sensual. The taste of the sugar left over on the wrappers of bubblegum, the click of Mahjong tiles, the sounds, smells and flavors that proliferate the ordinary extraordinary.

Sharon Shao and Joel Chapman contemplate a cookie in Cutting Ball Theater's ’Utopia,’ written by Charles Mee. (Courtesy of Cutting Ball Theater)

Above all, Utopia is a sensory experience, with a dizzying array of colorful costumes designed by Sarah LeFeber and exquisite props by Adeline Smith. Lighting designer Cassie Barnes imbues each scene with a signature color—a cabaret palette of deep lavender, luscious rose, gaslight green and primary blue. And cartoonish swoops and flourishes provided by James Ard’s sound design add dimension and a delightful goofiness to the mix. Interspersed throughout, the vibrant work of painters and sculptors from the Creativity Explored art studio for developmentally disabled adults brings irresistible pops of color and energy to this Utopia.

The last portion of the show is given over to RAWdance, in an outdoor series choreographed by Katerina Wong. Staging dances on hilltops, beneath trees and against a backdrop of beach sand and crashing waves, RAWdance performers move through the city, alone, in pairs and in masked, distanced groups. True to their moniker, their movement feels both raw and limitless. Joel Chapman’s score seems to trace the shape of breath expanding through lungs, complemented by a melancholy piano and precise percussion.

RAWdance ensemble in Cutting Ball Theater's ‘Utopia,’ written by Charles Mee. (Courtesy of Cutting Ball Theater)

Ultimately, it’s the dance sequences rather than the spoken text of the piece that moved me beyond mere appreciation of Cutting Ball’s fanciful vision. As I watched the dancers’ bodies inhabiting the scraps of nature left in the city, with the Sutro Tower looming behind them and the breeze ruffling their pant legs, I felt a desire to be near them in person. I felt a yearning and a sense of loss for what might have been and what yet might be. And perhaps an envy at the way the dancers seemed so free and unconfined.

It’s this yearning and envy that solidifies the idea of standing at the gates of a utopia for me. To peek through the lens at a world that slips, laughing, still just beyond reach. Is Utopia an ideal? Or is it an invitation? The answer may be different for every viewer.

Utopia streams though November 15, 2020. Audio descriptions, closed captioning and ASL interpretations are all available. More info and tickets here.

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