Directed by Bernadette Bridges (CC ’19) and written by Jake Arlow (BC ’19) and Jacob Kaplan (CC ’20), the long-awaited 125th Annual Varsity Show opened this Friday night in Roone Auditorium. Reporting on it is Riva 420, Contributing Editor for b-b-b-b-Bwog.
The writers of the Varsity Show have big shoes to fill. No matter what’s happened in years before – from Alma in sparkly shorts, to milkshakes and WBARcchanal; whether the audience left in euphoria or disappointment – the audience comes to VShow with a certain expectation. One play can’t be everything to every Columbia student. Yet the hope persists that somewhere in the depths of this frenzied, year-long, hyped-up lollapalooza, there will be some kernel of truth that speaks to the Columbia experience.
With recent events, the idea that such a pearl exists – that there is some common reality shared by every member of the Columbia community – becomes harder and harder to believe. Political polarization, protests, and outbreaks of violence have rocked the campus in the last few semesters. An old question persists: How can we find common ground? A new one arises: Should we?
The 125th Annual Varsity Show: It’s a Wonderful Strife follows three Columbia students as they are caught up in a polarizing campus controversy, only to realize that all is not as it seems. Tempering their critique with terrific humor and absurdity, the Varsity Show speaks to our driving questions – even if, sometimes, it shouts them out. (Spoilers ahead.)
The show opens with its actors whizzing around the stage: in an effort to reduce transportation costs, the Columbia administration has required students travel to class in off-brand Heelys. We meet our protagonist, Hannah Levine (Rachel Greenfeld, BC ‘19), who works in the Admissions Office; her best friend, the popular and overachieving Izzy Morales (Ilana Woldenberg, BC ‘20); and their other friend Danny DeWitt (Thomas Baker, CC ‘22), whose personality can be summed up with the line: “As we say in the RA community, see you later, alligator.” [Exeunt via Heely.]
Before leaving the Admissions Office, Hannah tells her boss, Dean Jessica Marinaccio (Estee Dechtman, BC ’22), about the Heely-related deaths on campus. Jessica panics. Quickly and without fanfare, it is revealed that everything we’ve seen so far was a lie: the “Columbia” Hannah and her friends live in is actually a simulation, created by the Admissions Office to gauge what exactly makes Columbia students so unhappy. À la The Good Place, the simulation has been rebooted 124 times, each time with different factors changed. The Heelys represent Jessica’s latest attempt – again, a failure.
Jessica and her scheming assistant Jason Mogen (Adam Glusker, CC ‘21) decide to reboot the simulation for a 125th time. This time, a campus-wide ban on milk is enforced, which goes about as well as you’d expect. The controversy divides the campus. Izzy’s obsession with the milk ban distances her from her friends, and ruins her relationship with Hannah. Danny fractures his neck (calcium deficiency.)
With the 125th attempt a failure, Jessica ends the simulation. The students discover they have actually spent their four years inside the now-defunct bagel shop Nussbaum & Wu. Act 2 follows the students as they try to pick up the pieces, to find out whether their college experience really meant anything at all.
With encouragement from Jessica and Jason, Hannah finally comes to the conclusion that while Columbia might not have been real, the people in it are. Columbia is its community. She reconciles with Izzy, then leads the other students in “rebuilding” their Columbia out of brooms, aprons, plastic gloves and the like.
Though their characters could have been better fleshed-out, the three main actors led the show admirably with their skill and charisma. Greenfeld continues her long track record as a star of the Varsity Show, playing Hannah with sympathy, poise and tremendous humor. Woldenberg showed off a beautiful voice and unexpected depth amidst the humor: “I’m just Columbia’s Pinocchio, but no part of me has grown.” Baker was all-around funny; the meaner he was to his residents, the better he got.
Some Bwog members had qualms about the decision to make Jessica Marinaccio and Jason Mogen, who are real people working in the Admissions Office, into the antagonists-slash-benevolent gods of It’s a Wonderful Strife. These administrators haven’t stepped into the public eye recently, and the characters’ personalities are ultimately original. This decision seemed at best unnecessary, and at worst a bit offensive. Nonetheless, Dechtman and Glusker’s acting proved a highlight of the show. Dechtman’s frenzied desire to please contrasted well against Glusker’s comic wickedness and flair for the dramatic: “I’ll make them call me Dean, and make PrezBo call me Daddy!”
The Varsity Show boasted a cast of not only talented actors and singers, but some of the finest physical comics I’ve seen on campus. Some of the most enjoyable scenes to watch were the Admissions Office vignette – featuring a kvetching Jewish father, a “Columbia is my safety school” type, and Lori Loughlin – and the classroom of Prof. Gurwitz, the most harangued poetry teacher of all time. The absurd humor of the script tracked extremely well, and was ratcheted up to eleven by delivery.
Of course, the funniest characters were, without a doubt, The Couple Who’s Been Together Since NSOP (played by Venice Ohleyer, CC ’21, and Harris Solomon, CC ’22). Yes, you know the one. The only thing they love more than each other is performing experimental theater. Maybe a line like “I can’t, for my mouth hath been stuffed with the phallus of capitalism,” would be funny on its own, but you’ll have to take my word for it: the delivery made it way better.
Composers Yael Cohen (CC ’21) and Brent Morden (CC’19) teamed up with the two writers to produce 12 songs which didn’t fail to entertain, nor to show off the cast’s terrific voices. They improved upon last year’s score with a healthy balance of small and full-ensemble numbers. Sadly, there was no standout earworm number in the show, no “Just One Candidate” that had us humming all the way home. But “IMHO” was one hilarious song, and the barbershop quartet – Ferris and the Booth Commons – proved an audience favorite with “Keeping it Delicious.”
As usual, a few notes about design before I get into analysis: Kristian Woerner’s (CC ’21) set kicked the Varsity Show’s usual realism to the curb with fun, Old Broadway-style cardboard cutouts, treading the line between architectural and digital. They looked great silhouetted against Gabo Lizardo’s (CC ’19) colorful, quickly-changing lit backdrop. Lena Kogan’s (BC ’19) costume design kept up the theme of individuality-yet-harmony by putting every character in a monochrome outfit, each a different color of the rainbow. Even the white simulation jumpsuits kept a splash of color.
The greatest twist in this year’s Varsity Show was not the “simulation” reveal itself: it was what writers Arlow and Kaplan did with it in Act 2. Instead of relying on the “simulation” simply as a funny plot device borrowed from an excellent TV show about the afterlife, they crystallized it into a thoughtful and unexpectedly clear metaphor for the short-sightedness of college life. The questions students ask themselves in Act 2 – What was the point of it all? Am I just Columbia’s puppet? What happens when it turns out no one outside of Columbia cares I was on CCSC? – Are all-too-real questions for recent graduates.
I give my critique with the following disclaimer. I resonated deeply with the message of this year’s Varsity Show, maybe more so than my fellow audience members. When I heard Izzy deliver the line, “Columbia has this unique ability to make you feel like you always have to be doing,” my heart dropped into my stomach. The show’s “Columbia is the people” ending, however bizarre, knocked at the door of truth. Out of everything you do in college, it is your relationships with other people that matter the most. It’s those relationships which persist – more so than any club, extracurricular, class or job that you took on because you felt like you weren’t enough without it.
If this show had come at a different time, in a different political climate, that message would have been unproblematic. But real Columbia life is not a simulation, and all our campus controversies aren’t bans on milk. In the wake of grad student workers protests and white supremacy and racially-based violence, is it really subversive or appropriate to handwave campus controversy as “all that arbitrary shit”? Can an argument not be made that people are angry because these issues matter – not just to the Columbia community, but to the wider world as well?
And while campus controversies can certainly harm your relationships, working together with your friends in pursuit of a social good can strengthen them, too. If the Varsity Show writers had added a real campus issue to the mix, showing that debate can also be productive (or perhaps, if they had ended the show with the students breaking out of the simulation and returning to reality), their important, core message about community would have been less equivocal, and more believable.
To conclude this review, and to mediate the risk of being interpreted as harsher than I intend: I liked the Varsity Show. It was incredibly funny. It was original, unexpected, and worth going to, even though I had to run to perform in the ensemble of a three-hour midnight show right afterwards. It had an extremely important message: to prioritize relationships. But that message came at the cost of an equally important truth, that Columbia is not totally separate from the real world. Rather than persist in the Columbia “bubble,” continuing to ignore reality in favor of our relationships, we should build upon those relationships to pursue community and social change.
Go see the Varsity Show this weekend, and keep an eye out for that kernel of truth.
The 125th Annual Varsity Show plays in Roone tonight at 8 PM and tomorrow at 2 and 8 PM. Tickets from $1.75.
Image via Riva Weinstein