20 June, 2008

Why I Hate Utah: Youth Theater Review

It was a Tuesday afternoon and I was in dire straits. I had no job to go to, no class, no interviews, no dates, no social engagements, and no more alcohol. Naturally, I did what any enterprising young man of my generation would do: I turned to Facebook. Lo and behold, my friend Keegan had invited me to see a play being previewed that very night. A chance to watch something funny while simultaneously pretending to be cultured? How could I refuse? Why I Hate Utah is the story of a man named Liam, played by Rueben Tillman, who travels the roadways of America, trying to escape a curse: his heart will not beat and everything he cares for (including his beloved Constance) has a tendency to mysteriously blink out of existence. On his travels he comes across a roadside diner, which is inhabited by the powerful and mysterious Lucy, played by Chelsea Cameron, and her eccentric and lovable band of misfit underlings. Hilarity ensues.

I must confess, I went into the performance expecting to be about as disappointed a Baptist girl on her honeymoon. And who could blame me? As our parents are all too keenly aware, youth performances are… well, they’re youth performances. As much as it hurts me (as a blue-moon youth performer myself) to admit, there isn’t really much genre distinction between a play put on by eighteen year olds and a third-grade Christmas pageant.

So when I say I was pleasantly surprised… well, let’s just say it was a big goddamn surprise. Yes, the play has problems: the writing varies wildly between pure genius and rambling incoherency, characters occasionally pull emotional one eighties, the most pivotal moments take place off stage, there is a confusing and non-sequiter (though amusing) interlude with a demonic puppet, one of the plot twists is predictable by the fifth line, and the ending is deeply unsatisfying.

Despite this, I’d buy another ticket in a heartbeat.

I think the reason I found the ending so unsatisfying was because I cared so much about the characters. In some ways, Why I Hate Utah feels more like the pilot episode of a TV Show: nothing is resolved by the end of the two-part premier, perhaps because all of our favourite characters need to be free to traipse off into the sunset and have more adventures. By the time the final bows were taken, I was already wondering where those characters were going to be. And because of this, because I found myself so interested, so desperate to find out what happens next, I found myself totally immersed in the story. A pleasant surprise considering I was expecting stammering teenagers fumbling their way through awkwardly written lines, pausing every few seconds as their co-stars whisper their lines to them from off stage. Speaking of which, perhaps the biggest goddamn surprise of all of them was the quality of the acting. I’m no stranger to the ear-rending, soul-destroying world of teen acting. I’ve literally fled Shakespearean performances in a desperate (and ultimately futile attempt) to delay my inevitable descent into misanthropic alcoholism. Thankfully, the cast of Why I Hate Utah is composed of some of the best student actors I’ve ever seen. Hell, why beat around the bush: some of these guys were so damn good they make some of the professional theater groups I’ve seen look like a bunch of chimps doing William Shatner impersonations. Chelsea Cameron, playing the aforementioned Lucy, is a particular treat, lending a sensibility to the role which is at once world-weary and playful, like a 1930’s Hollywood starlet. Emily Snee, who plays Chloe, brings an organic and multifaceted approach to her character’s relationships, a style which allows her to evoke emotions as disparate as sorrow and comedy in the same line. Reuben Tillman, who plays our hero, Liam, manages to make the transition from stammering fish-out-of-water to a Bad-Ass who rebukes the Devil without ever seeming forced, so that the arc of his character development seems as natural as any I’ve ever seen. Even if the writing wasn’t compelling and the

But let’s be honest: you won’t see a play just because I tell you it’s good. You’re a university student, slothful by nature and infinitely more inclined spend your nights torrenting the Lost season finale and drinking Jello-shots than you are to go to a play. Those are just the facts. So I’ll offer another reason you should go see this play: it’s a youth performance. Andrew Ferguson, writer and director of the piece in question, told the DA that he believes that youth bring a perspective to theater that can’t be found in plays written, performed, or directed by adults. He’s absolutely right, of course, but consider this as well: none of came to university because we get excited at the prospect of writing essays or kissing our TA’s asses (well, metaphorically anyways. Depends how hot your TA is). We came because we wanted to have fun, meet interesting people, and broaden our horizons. Good youth art is rare, as are good youth artists. Vancouver’s youth culture scene is amazing, and failing to take advantage of it not only ignores one of the best reasons to go to school in this city, it also damages the culture scene itself. Artists need an audience as much as frat boys need keggers: to remove the latter totally invalidates the existence of the former. By patronizing youth artists, you’re not only entertaining yourself, you’re also supporting Vancover’s rich cultural future. After all, someday these youth actors will be mature actors, just as you and I will someday be mature audiences. Well, for a given value of mature, in any case.

Why I Hate Utah is playing until Sunday night. Shows are at 7:30 every night, with a 2pm matinee on the weekend dates. Five dollars at the door will get you a ticket. The venue is Carousel Theater on Granville Island, 1411 Cartwright Street. Don’t miss it. Who knows when you’ll have another chance to support the arts, enjoy yourself, and pretend to be cultured all at the same time again?

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