Arts Editor Joseph Powers brings you Bwog’s review of The 121st Varsity Show, as well as some thoughts of his own.
V121 opens on ambitious RA and plucky heroine Gwen Ross (Gabrielle Bullard, BC ’18) returning from a semester spent abroad. She is anxious to return to her Columbia home, and we, the audience, look forward to joining her in our own return to the upbeat escapism of the Varsity Show.
The curtains open on the show, and we are led into hell.
Columbia has devolved into a battleground of angry factions. The Football Players for Social Justice literally battle the Columbia University Radical Misogynists for meeting space. Roaree’s head is brandished on a pike. Alma is soon decapitated herself.
Our peppy Gwen Ross sees opportunity in the chaos—the chance to personally bring Columbia back together. However, the administration, and the delightfully dastardly Suzanne Goldberg (Skylar Gottlieb, BC ’16), have a plan of their own: send disgruntled students elsewhere using a technologically advanced magic box, to be replaced by eager transfers.
Writers Alexandra Horn (BC ’16) and Bijan Samareh (CC ’15) make use of these fantastical elements, but wisely do not allow them to define their show. Instead, having established this hellscape, they let it serve as a backdrop, focusing their attention on the lives of their characters, and not just on the ways their world is changed. For the most part, this world actually looks remarkably like our own Columbia. Students are worn down by stress and the constant rejection of ill-conceived romantic advances. In an energetic musical number they debate passionately, then righteously, in an Introduction to Women and Gender Studies course, and can’t help but let growing disdain develop into confused attraction (“Love’s More Fun”). These students are irritated by pseudo-intellectual post-hookup pillow talk but find comfort in nights of real intimacy spent with their friends. And when they are woken up by the birth control alarm the next morning, they seriously consider raising a baby (or selling it) for the chance to sleep in. All of these minor references in the show touch on Columbia students’ realities, drawing a clear parallel between our world and the world of the show, hellish though it may seem.
The ensemble achieves this realism while still managing to characterize it with humor. Rapidly switching between roles, its members bring a sense of individuality to the characters they portray while still working together and playing off of each other. It is a challenge to identify any clear stand out members, not because there were no exceptional performers, but because the uniform distribution of talent. My personal favorite was Varun Kumar (SEAS ’16), for his range of expressions and pitch perfect line readings (“We are the Trusteeeeeees”), but yours might just as easily be April Cho (CC ’17) for her impression of a Dartmouth transfer, or Sophie Laruelle (CC ’17) for her satire of CUMB’s ‘revolutionary’ humor.
For most of the show, the two leads feel like a part of this ensemble, just two more characters appearing to make a point or a joke, standing apart only at rare moments to drive the plot forward. This is not to say they don’t play their parts well. Bullard captures the subtlety of her character, slowly revealing a pragmatic idealist who must overcome her pride and thoughtlessness to realize her goals (impressive even before considering that she is only a first-year student). As her anarchist romantic counterpart, Arrow, Isaac Calvin (CC ’17) walks the fine line between charmingly obnoxious and obnoxiously charming.
More on how we thought this year’s show went next.