Yeast Nation (the triumph of life)
nytheatre.com review by Kristin Skye Hoffmann
August 13, 2011
The time: 3,000,458,000 B.C. The place: the bottom of the primordial sea. The show: Yeast Nation (The Triumph of Life) by the team that brought us Urinetown.
It is evident from the moment we open the program that the same snarky, witty, silly and self-deprecating humor we found in writer-director Greg Kotis and composer-lyricist Mark Hollmann's previous work hasn't waned at all. Even the subject matter is similar. In Urinetown we were taken to a futuristic world where the vital resource, water, is running out. This time we are set as far back into the past as possible with the first living organisms ever (presumably), the salt-eating Yeasts. Even at the beginning of time the need for sustainable resources was great. The Yeasts have created their Greek-like community at the opening of a salt vent at the bottom of the sea and since they easily multiply asexually, their food supply is running thin. That seems like trouble enough but when the emotion of love starts to develop within these creatures there is no telling what can happen.
The fantastically funny Harriet Harris leads the 6 members of the Chorus of Yeasts (each named Jan the Chorus) as a blind prophet, Jan the Unnamed. She embodies a sort of "Gollum-esque" vocal quality that plays perfectly in the bizarre world this team has created. She takes us through the "first story every told" or at least the first story "worth musicalizing" and she does it with gusto. The entire ensemble helps her do this but none so much as the wonderful young actor Charlie Plummer, whose dry, intelligent observances of the loose ends of the plot line are consistently hilarious and beyond his years.
The rest of the cast is made up the individual citizens of Yeast Nation as well as the royal court who rule. George McDaniel as Jan the Elder is convincing in the role of the king who fears change so much that it is ultimately his undoing. Manu Narayan as Jan the Wise has an impeccable sense of comic timing and he nails every moment. Joy Suprano as the villainous Jan the Sly has an amazing voice that, combined with her natural humor and presence, makes her a force to be reckoned with. Erik Altemus and Emily Tarpey as the tragic couple Jan the Second Oldest and Jan the Sweet, respectively, are perfect ingénues and complement each other well. Truly the entire ensemble is stellar and they are beautifully showcased by Wendy Seyb's smart effective choreography and Kotis's clean and apparently simple blocking.
Technically the show is remarkable. The costumes by David Kaley work well moving us from generation to generation of creatures with ease. The set design by Adam Koch isn't overly complicated and takes us right to the bottom of the sea. The only issue I had was that the brilliant orchestra was frequently louder than the actors and so precious lines were sometimes missed.
The theme of the vicious cycle of creatures taking advantage of the environment and not considering the outcome, only to realize too late that their species will die and be replaced by another species that is equally clueless on the subject, is bittersweet. Luckily Yeast Nation presents it in such a delightful way that no one leaves depressed. My theatergoing companion and I even walked away debating if the main theme was taking care of our environment or rejecting blind faith in religious stronghold. Certainly the show is deep, even in its humor.
What is most impressive is the futility of actions that the protagonists try to take. Those with good intentions are ultimately ineffective except in negative ways and those with sinister intentions are completely ineffective. The idea being that no matter what we do we are prisoners to the fact that we are living creatures on earth who will never know better. That in itself is an original take that I was not expecting.
I feel very lucky to have been a part of the opening night audience and it certainly isn't a surprise that Yeast Nation is sold out for the rest of the FringeNYC run, but I wouldn't be at all surprised if it is granted an extension and the time before it makes it to Broadway is likely short. If you have a chance to get a ticket, take it. You won't be sorry.