Internal Editor Zoe Sottile and Events Editor Isabel Sepúlveda popped and locked their way over to the Varsity Show’s annual West End Preview. After 30 minutes of songs and the occasional laugh, they were left sufficiently bamboozled but…cautiously optimistic about this year’s show.
As they do every year, the cast of the 125th Varsity Show, Columbia’s longest-running arts tradition took to the Lerner Black Box to give us a taste of the show they’ll be bringing to life in Roone this May. The 30-minute display showcased the sheer talent the show has as its disposal this year, leaving us hoping that the show’s creative team will be able to clean up some of the more yikes moments before the curtain officially goes up.
The show opened with Butler’s Librarian for American and British History (played by the wonderful Nicolas Duran, CC ‘21) announcing the administration finally admitted it no longer felt capable of actually making this campus fun. To remedy the situation, the administration hires former Carnival cruise organizer Danny (played by Thomas Baker CC ’22) and his second-in-command Rudy (or Rutti Tutti Fresh and Fruity, as they preferred to be called) (played by Dale Jackson SEAS ’22). Their roles provided a nice guiding structure to the preview. They were also both excellent: lots of physical comedy and the perfect sad yet over-the-top optimism of adults who work with college students.
V-show’s humor has struggled in the past with generic punchlines seemingly ripped from every buy/sell meme. This time around, the preview incorporated that into Danny’s character to great effect – he read cliched Columbia jokes (“PREZBO!”) off a scrap of paper like your residence hall director trying their best to be trendy. The punchlines also seemed more keyed into specific events (thumbtacks in Ferris potatoes) and more niche campus knowledge (Erik Gray and Postcrypt Coffeehouse) to make the show feel timely.
In one of the first snippets, Christian Palomares (CC ’22) killed it in his portrayal of an overly passionate English professor. There was a lot of pelvic thrusting as he said that his seminar isn’t about Romantic poetry, “It’s about feeling.” That piece featured sharp choreography and decent jokes about the competitive nature of Columbia classes.
The big Controversial Segment of the preview was the piece about Beta brothers and hazing – unclear why Beta in particular was their target. Rachel Greenfeld (BC ’19) and Lorenzo Talbot-Foote (SEAS ’19) played two “master-betas” hazing two young pledges, portrayed by Nicolas Duran and Callum Kiser (CC ’21). Danny and Rudy call in a next-level version of Amazon’s Alexa to watch out for dangerous hazing, embodied by Adam Glusker (CC ’21). But with Alexa’s “Kindness and positivity centers compromised”, her intervention ends up being kind of… aggressive. Criticizing their hyper-masculine brotherhood, she urges them to confess their vulnerabilities and cry. Nicolas Duran’s character bursts into tears as he confesses, “I’m gay.” This moment when combined with the blatant queer-coding of Glusker’s character left us cringing on our exit.
Though individual moments in the preview really stood out, the truncated nature of the preview made it difficult to tell the point the show wants to make, aside from “Columbia kids are sad all the time.” This left the preview’s satire and political standpoint muddled and confusing. Sometimes it wasn’t clear if the show was employing stereotypes or criticizing them. For example, despite previously calling out student’s distaste for the Core, the Romantic Poetry class song took aim at a student for calling out queer erasure and white-focused humanities curriculums. Given the lack of context, it was hard to tell who in the scene we were supposed to sympathize with, and after the events of last semester, that question is more alive than ever on campus. The same issue was at play in the Beta hazing number: is intense physical hazing and LGBT identity something we’re supposed to take seriously or something just to be played for laughs?
Hopefully, these issues will be alleviated when we get to see its show in context and figure out which characters the audience is supposed to sympathize with. This year’s Varsity Show has the talent to pull off talking about these difficult issues in a funny and engaging way if only they can find it in themselves to live up to the challenge.
Image via The Varsity Show.