Roustabouts’ ‘gUnTOPIA’ a satirical reimagining of a 9mm Wonderland
By Cassiopeia Guthrie, March 19, 2023
After a three year pandemic pause, Will Cooper’s premiere gUnTOPIA has arrived via the Roustabouts Theater Co., where it will play on the Moxie stage through April 2.
The family at the story’s center are the Nelsons. They live a seemingly idyllic life in a pool blue midcentury home. A typical nuclear family, there’s Harry (Phil Johnson), Mary (Katie Karel), 12-year-old June (Elena Bertacchi), and 10-year-old Bobby (Eben Rosenzweig). As the characters appear on stage for the first time, everything reads like a sitcom… so much, in fact, that it wouldn’t be out of place to experience a laugh track. June, dressed in a blue frock with white trim, sings to a stuffed puppy. Her brother returns from school wearing a tucked plaid shirt and toting a 1930s-era book strap.
What sets this family, this time, and this play apart from others, however, is that the society in which it takes place has been reimagined with guns as a key part of the fabric of everyday life. In fact, in the Nelsons’ world, everyone carries and everyone shoots, both in the family and surrounding community, including Detective Rheingold (Walter Murray), neighbor Ed (also Murray), and school counselor Consuela (Veronica Burgess). Shots are fired in the market over butternut squash, bullying kids make their classmates “dance” in the school hallways, a long-time friend takes a round to the rear for crossing the property line, and a threat-assessing automatic weapon becomes a decorative living room fixture. And, as if this isn’t enough cognitive dissonance, it isn’t long before the unthinkable happens - daughter June becomes the recipient of a “clean kill” shot - and the family expresses brief regret, then coolly arranges pick-up of her body by local authorities, focusing less on their loss and more on their admiration for the officer’s sidearm.
After all, according to the program notes, that is the point of the show: to highlight an increasing emotional immunity to gun violence. And, while the opening scene does just that, unfortunately, the script struggles to maintain a sense of thematic continuity throughout. The various overlapping motifs are dense and inconsistent, and the play would benefit from significant workshopping to tease the primary premise out of its pages. Perhaps there is too much that is familiar in this staging to be able to navigate that density: there are 1930s props juxtaposed with cell phones that can receive photo texts and camouflage bulletproof vests. There are elements of literary fantasy, other components that read like 1950s sitcoms, the mystery of why a child won’t speak and who her friend is, and heavy-handed near-sexual assault paired with the threat of bodily harm without compliance.
On a positive side, the company has paid a significant amount of attention towards thoughtfully preparing the design components of the production in this premiere; there is an armorer listed in the program (Dan R. Chatham II) and all handling of prop guns (Alyssa Kane) reads as authentic and comfortable, the various 1930s-50s inspired costumes are dapper (no costumer listed), and Tony Cucuzzella’s set design is an effective space wherein this dystopian satire can unfold. The space is appropriately lit by Michelle Miles and gunshots resonate with a realistic ring, thanks to Jon Fredette.
However, even the spot-on efforts by co-directors Kate Rose Reynolds and Rosina Reynolds to shape Karel’s interpretation of mother Mary (whose affects are replete with eerie, dead eyes stares, a bird-like cocking of her head, and a firm commitment to an unwavering, disconcerting desire to have another replacement baby, but only if she can hit a target) aren’t enough. The script, which is intended to follow the character arc of father Harry through his reckoning of a life without his daughter, simply struggles to do its one charge: aim true.
It’s likely that the dark satirical humor; the elements of fantasy infused by the integration of Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice in Wonderland;’ the opportunity to explore conversations about firearms legislation and freedoms in post-show chatbacks; and the lobby display highlighting gun violence will contribute towards varying takeaways for audience members. That said, in writing “an anti-gun play” without clear and definitive rhetorical messaging, gUnTOPIA feels like a missed opportunity to use the theatrical stage as a vehicle for social change and advocacy.
The Roustabouts Theatre Co.’s production of gUnTOPIA runs through April 2 at Moxie Theatre.