SMTD performs provocative satire ‘Urinetown’

From the colorful title to the hot-button themes, it seems that everything about the show “Urinetown” makes for a shocking start to the School of Music, Theatre and Dance (SMTD) theater season.

“When we are scheduling a season, we like to get a theme going,” said “Urinetown” director Donald Brewer. “This year, the theme is resistance and rising up, and ‘Urinetown’ has that theme. An element of ‘Urinetown’ is the poor rising up against the elite because the elite are forcing them to pay to urinate and relieve themselves.”

Set in an alternate world where 20 years of environmental collapse leads to the privatization of humanity’s most critical need — toilet access  — “Urinetown” toes along the fine line between comic absurdity and cutting satire.

“There is a water shortage and a company called UGC, which stands for Urine Good Company, is making … the poor pay to pee and they keep raising all these fee hikes,” Brewer said. “There is no middle class, it is either dirt poor or filthy rich, and therein lies the conflict because eventually the meek will rise up.”

Despite the apocalyptic scenario in “Urinetown,” the show’s creator Greg Kotis found inspiration in reality.

“[Kotis] was on a trip to Paris and he was shocked by the fact that there are all these urinals on the street where you have to pay to pee,” Brewer said. “And he actually, because he was on a very tight budget, had to start to scrounge his change and monitor how often he went to the bathroom because he did not have enough money at the time.”

Shocked by the phenomena of pay toilets, Kotis was able to get “Urinetown” up to Broadway in 2001 and and won three Tony awards for best book of a musical, best direction and best original score. Later in the 2000s “Urinetown” made its first appearance on the SMTD stage.

Despite the possible clashing combination of serious themes and satirical humor, Brewer believes that Oakland University audiences will be able to enjoy both.

“I think at bare minimum, it is going to make people think,” Brewer said. “I think they are going to love it because [of] the relevance it has today in our current political climate … There are a lot of parallels you can draw between the world today and this alternate reality world we have set up in ‘Urinetown.’” 

To help bring audiences into the alternate world of “Urinetown” is an army of student cast and crew members, including Sam Torres, who plays the role of Penelope Pennywise, the landlord of the poor peoples’ pay toilet.

“[Penelope is] very different than any characters I have played before,” Torres said. “She is darker, creepier and very demanding. Penny is someone who will do anything to get ahead in the world.”

“Urinetown” is running at the Varner Hall Studio Theatre from Oct. 10 -20. Tickets are $22 for general admission and $12 for 10 a.m. matinee and student tickets. A full list of showtimes can be found on the SMTD website.