Every once in a while, a piece of theater comes along where even as you’re watching it you wish you could rewind or slow it down. Before it’s even over, you know you want to see it again. This was my experience Friday night while watching Welcome to Dystopia at Bedlam Theatre, where it is being presented by Four Humors Theater. Written by Brant Miller and Matt Spring, the play tells the story of a future totalitarian city called Dystopia. Perhaps it was the sci-fi element; the combination of humor and social commentary; or the idea of seeing the equivalent of The Island, a favorite guilty-pleasure film of mine, on stage. Whatever it was, I found Welcome to Dystopia surprisingly absorbing and highly entertaining.
Of course, the depiction of a negative utopia—a “dystopia”—is not a new idea. Classic novels such as Fahrenheit 451, Nineteen Eighty-Four, and A Brave New World have also spoken to the dangers of such a society. Similar to those societies, the society of Dystopia thrives because repressive controls are in place and there’s a general lack of courage to stand up to The Person In Charge (in Dystopia that’s literally what they call him.)
|welcome to dystopia, playing through march 27 at bedlam theatre. for tickets ($10-$15) and information, see bedlamtheatre.org.|
At the center of the story is Ampersand (Tom Lloyd), a librarian in the Book-a-torium whose sole responsibility is to retrieve books for The Person in Charge (Billy Mullaney) and prevent other citizens from touching, let alone reading, the novels. Over time, Ampersand learns from his fellow librarian and secret-book-reader Umlaut (Jon Cole) that the world of Dystopia, where one must say “query” before posing a question and where there’s a curious obsession with chickens, is not the norm.
Ampersand becomes determined to leave the domed city and upon his escape he meets a group of outsiders who are hysterically as clueless as the citizens inside the dome. I found this turn—that the grass outside the dome isn’t always greener—to be quite unexpected; it ultimately pushes Ampersand to return and try to better the society he had thought of leaving. I hesitate to give much more of the plot away, because it really is worth attending in person and experiencing for yourself.
Director Samantha Johns capably controls what could be chaos on stage. Multiple scenes in the Corn-a-torium involve citizens telling their truly “acceptable” stories over one another. Johns maneuvers more than a dozen citizens about the stage like pieces on a chessboard, highlighting individual speakers and then moving each in turn to the background. She also makes good use of the small Bedlam Theatre stage by having the actors enter from the sides of the audience and down the center aisle at times. When The Person in Charge enters in this manner it only adds to his mysterious power.
Jason Ballweber’s set is impressive but simple. Plastic hangings cover the wall and at the center are two striking towers of books, serving as a constant reminder of the power of knowledge and dangers in suppressing it. Multiple TV screens are also illuminated throughout the space and at times bare messages to the citizens, and thus the audience, from The Person in Charge.
Welcome to Dystopia features a cast of 17 young local actors. I personally found the way they were all able to spit out dialogue in the unnatural Dystopian style, amidst laughs form the audience, quite a feat. A highlight is Jon Cole, who seamlessly transitions from the intellectual librarian Umlaut in scenes at the dome, to a raucous handlebar-mustache-touting outsider in later scenes. As Ampersand, Tom Lloyd is every bit the quiet hero. While other characters push the envelope and at times are a bit (deliciously) over-the-top, Lloyd makes sure Ampersand does not become a caricature.
One of my favorite scenes takes place early in the show; it features Toby Rust and Alisa Mattson as citizens visiting the Code-a-torium, an area of the dome where citizens go weekly to see if they’re compatible for copulation with one another. The two bring a sweet sense of adoration to what has been established as an unemotional society and play off each other well as they await their fate. When The Person in Charge announces from the glowing screens they are not “codeable,” the audience was audibly disappointed.
In a season filled with high-profile productions at the Guthrie, the Ordway, and the Orpheum, Welcome to Dystopia is a diamond in the rough. While it isn’t the first work to comment on a negative utopia—and it surely won’t be the last—it’s a unique, homegrown production. I found it particularly refreshing that there was no direct attempt to comment on our current society; instead, comparisons are left to the audience. In any case, it’s certainly worth your time and $15. Get yourself to the Bedlam-a-torium, stat!