Our Arts Editor 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.
The finishing touch on this well crafted reality is the versatile score, composed jointly by Sam Balzac (CC ’17) and Fernanda Douglas (CC ’16). Highlighting a villainous monologue with the brassy notes of old Broadway in one scene, it easily transitions into something more sweet and sentimental during a moment shared between friends and to something bordering on rock opera during a call for societal destruction. At its most memorable, the score takes the urgent pitches of a late night news bulletin, introducing just an echo of “Roar Lion Roar” before the frequently revisited chorus of “WAKE UP COLUMBIA: WHAT ARE YOU FIGHTING FOR?”
Horn and Samareh apply this score, this talented cast, and this well developed world to confront a range of problems faced by the student body. From its start, V121 explores issues relating to conflict and wellness. Not one, but two songs—“Senior Night” and “Morningside High”—explore substance abuse, and its role as a coping mechanism for isolation, helplessness, and depression. Megan Litt (BC ’17) as Karen Phillips gracefully carries an important subplot devoted to those students struggling to afford their time here. The issue of sexual assault is frequently alluded to, if not discussed directly, in an absurd administrative mishandling of clear human rights violations.
The show places the greatest blame on the administration, but not by reducing it to the cartoon villainy of past Varsity Shows. Gottlieb brings enthusiasm and electric stage presence to her Suzanne Goldberg, and Michael McKay (CC ’15) wins the hearts of the audience as Scott Helfrich, Goldberg’s second in command, but while these characters both contribute to the villainy of the plot, neither is found to be at the root of it. Nor can the scuttling Trustees, for all their staunch conservatism and undisguised self-interest. In the end the administration that permits and perpetuates so much harm is discovered to be nothing but bureaucratic loyalty, pride in long job titles, and misplaced faith, all held together by the judicious application of red tape.
This same critical outlook is brought to the nature of activism, which is here not, as in years passed, reduced to a metaphor for togetherness, but described as a frustrating and constantly shifting compromise between the idealistic pursuit of radical change and the practical need to work within the existing corrupt systems. The relationship between Gwen and Arrow is, more than a love story, a conversation between two very different theories of change and conceptions of privilege.
These ideas easily overcome the few structural issues of the show. Pacing, in particular, seems like it could have been kept tighter, though with this material it is easy to understand the desire to include as much as possible. Sound quality was wildly inconsistent, but will almost certainly be addressed in the coming shows. Eugene, a stale nerd stereotype not only isn’t very funny, but doesn’t really fit into the plot, despite a valiant effort by Asher Varon (JTS/GS ’18).
The only issue that actually threatens the show’s success comes in its second act. Without giving too much away, the show moves away from realism into a more traditional Varsity Show realm. Our heroes band together against the forces of darkness. They plumb depths never meant to be ventured. And, most crucially, though not altogether successful, they claim victory.
In grappling with so many problems facing our community, V121 puts itself in the difficult position of finding some solution for them. The script does take on issues at Columbia that have not been resolved yet, so the challenge the writers create for themselves is coming up with a satisfying fantasy ending for the story of our own campus. I consider the terms of the victory they eventually arrive at interestingly subversive and true-to life. They might also be construed as a last minute whitewash over questions that deserve more thought.
There is no question that this is an ambitious show. Nor can it be denied that it is a clever one, a funny one, and at many points, a successful one. It will be debated however, how well V121 eventually addresses those problems it chooses to acknowledge. I admit, there is some disagreement about this point on our staff. For example, the racial diversity in the V121 cast should not be overlooked given the almost all-white ensembles of past shows, but what V121 makes up for in racial representation lacks in regards to sexuality. Almost all of the relationships in the show are heteronormative, which is a bit disappointing given the blatant possibility of a love connection between two female characters.
Ultimately though, it is our predominant opinion that the message of this show is not just acceptable, but powerful. In dropping Columbia into hell, and then believably showing life going on pretty much as it is, Almageddon makes a strong case that hell might not be so far off from where we already are, that our school faces significant problems, and that these problems continue to be addressed poorly, to the real harm of the student body. It makes the equally strong case that even in these dark times there are moments of intimacy and camaraderie, that we can overcome our differences, and that together we can heal our community, fractured today, but not broken.
We at Bwog believe in this message, and are proud to recommend V121: Almageddon. V121 will present a show tonight at 8 PM and two shows on Sunday at 2 PM and 8 PM.