Unsettling and Timely Satire from Roustabouts

Phil Johnson, Katie Karel, Eben Rosenzweig and Elena Bertacchi. (Photos courtesy of Daren Scott).

Right after the 2020 world premiere performance of The Roustabouts Theatre Co.’s grim show, gUnTOPIA, the rest of the run was cancelled, due to the Covid-19 pandemic. After a three-year wait, it is finally back and audiences can now experience the disturbing and thought-provoking story.

In the suburb of gUnTOPIA, at the Nelson home, a brother, Bobby (Eben Rosenzweig) and his sister, June (Elenea Bertacchi), live with their parents in a 1950’s-esque society where almost everyone is pro-gun. After the siblings start playing with their guns, Bobby accidentally shoots June, which barely fazes his dad, Harry (Artistic Director, Phil Johnson) and mom, Mary (Katie Karel).

Upon seeing a photo of an orphan, Alice (Bertacchi), who looks identical to June, Harry becomes determined to adopt the young girl. Neither Bobby or Mary want Alice to stay at their home, since the son is convinced that Alice is June back from the dead, and his wife does not like the fact that Alice hates guns.

Classified as a satire, I’d also label Roustabouts’ founder, Will Cooper’s, script as a tragedy, because of the bleak events that occur throughout the 90-minute one act narrative. There is offbeat humor and jokes, yet the majority of the biggest plot points involve the consequences of gun violence, which are relentlessly downbeat.

A few of the gun gags do occasionally get repetitive, but there is plenty of gallows humor that’s equally humorous and intentionally unsettling.

Although the commentary on gun violence is effective, I was equally uncomfortable by the way Cooper deals with the apathy of loss after the passing of June, and the unacceptance that gUnTOPIA citizens share towards Alice. Mary criticizes Alice for not liking guns, and her misguided anger reminded me of intolerance and how casually cruel certain hateful individuals are in real life.

The cheery mid-20th century atmosphere, depicted by directors, Rosina Reynolds and Kate Rose Reynolds, set designer Tony Cucuzzella, lighting designer Michelle Miles and sound designer, John Fredette, present a superficial happy home where cracks begin to quickly show. Observing characters with so many guns inside the retro abode does create a sense of unease in every sequence. All of their work, along with the performers, highly contribute to a strong production.

Johnson is phenomenal in showcasing Harry’s seemingly jovial side and vulnerability that grows during the evening. There are moments when some theatregoers will be brought to tears while Harry is dealing with June’s death.

Katie Karel, Phil Johnson, Ethan Rosenzweig and Veronica Burgess.

Karel’s acting stands out, and she equally finds a balance of black comedy and intense emotions. It’s that mix from Karel that makes Mary feel surprisingly human.

Rosenzweig, Bertacchi, Walter Murray and Veronica Burgess each bring lively personalities to their roles. Murray, in particular, shows off plenty of range as the ultra-serious Detective Rheingold, and as Harry’s irresponsible and carefree best friend, Ed.

It should be noted that audiences are encouraged to attend talkbacks, and hear from a variety of individuals discussing the topic of guns, including local Rabbi Matthew Marko and California State Assemblymember Brian Maienschein and San Diego Councilmember Marni von Wilpert.

Though I did experience dark laughs and chuckles from gUnTOPIA, the play left me emotionally exhausted, which I’m pretty sure is how Cooper and the other artists wanted the audience to react. As long as you are comfortable with the relevant subject matter, I would recommend watching the awkwardly funny and draining show.

[box] Show times are Thursdays at 7:30 pm, Fridays at 7:30 pm, Saturdays at 2:00 pm and 7:30 pm and Sundays at 2:00 pm and 7:00 pm. [/box]

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The Roustabouts Theatre Company
P. O. Box 222 1286 University Avenue San Diego California 92103-3312 Work Phone: 619-728-7820 Website: The Roustabouts Theatre Company
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