Rising to the top


They’ve done it again—maybe. Greg Kotis and Mark Hollman, the writers who won Tony Awards for Urinetown, a musical comedy about pay-per-use toilets, have delivered a new offering about another unlikely subject: the existential dilemmas of single-celled yeasts, one of earth’s first life forms.

Yeast Nation (The Triumph of Life) made its Midwest premiere September 23 at Chicago’s American Theatre Company. The story takes us back three billion years, when salt-eating yeasts (all named Jan) floated happily in the primordial soup. But trouble looms: as the yeasts consume too much, they multiply too quickly. That leads to scarcity, fear, power struggles, and a lot of singing and dancing.

Writer and lyricist Kotis, AB’88, says he chose the untimely theme because he wondered “how far back you can go and still tell a story.” Composer and lyricist Hollman, AB’85, added “mock opera pretensions” to the tale, which had a 1997 run in Juneau, Alaska. At a recent preview performance in Chicago, they huddled in the theater’s last row with director PJ Paparelli, scribbling notes when lines or gags didn’t work and guffawing appreciatively when they did.

Mostly, the show succeeds. Whether they are belting out ballads, stumbling across the stage, or delivering complex dialogue, the cast is superb, from the lead actors to the satirical Greek chorus. Simple costumes and staging bring the briny underworld to life—all it takes is neon-green rain ponchos, electric-pink Lycra, strobe lights, and lots of black nail polish. Some of the best songs have the most absurd lyrics, including a duet (“You’re Not the Yeast You Used to Be”) and the stirring act-one finale (featuring the lines “Stasis is our membrane/Stasis is our balm”).

Both in Urinetown and Yeast Nation, Kotis and Hollman artfully blend the cerebral and the mundane. Who else but University of Chicago graduates would rhyme “dreary” with “query,” “kill ya” with “cilia” and “that really blows” with “status quos?”


Just days before the preview, the authors were rewriting songs, and there are still a few kinks to work out. The two-hour performance feels a tad long; perhaps the authors could pare down a production number or shorten a soliloquy. And while Kotis's script eschews overt pop-culture references, toward the play’s end, the characters’ preoccupation with romance—really, who cares about a yeast love triangle?—seems misplaced.

A focus on bigger questions (life, death, survival) is more warranted as we grapple with issues of scarcity and sustainability today. In the meantime, as one of the characters in Yeast Nation reminds us, “If science can’t save us, perhaps a piece of musical theater can.”

Yeast Nation runs through October 18 at the American Theatre Company, 1909 West Byron Street, Chicago.

Elizabeth Station

Photography by Michael Brosilow.


September 25, 2009