Is it all even real? Or are we in a simulation?
Or, better yet, a simulation conducted by the Columbia University dean of admissions testing if a milk ban will finally make Columbia students less miserable?
The 125th Annual Varsity Show is being performed this weekend from May 3 to 5 in the Roone Arledge Auditorium. This year titled “It’s a Wonderful Strife,” the University’s longest-running student-written, -directed, and -produced show was written by Jake Arlow, BC ’19, and Jacob Kaplan, CC ’20, directed by Bernadette Bridges, CC ’19, and produced by Samantha Grubner, SEAS ’19 and Sila Puhl, CC ’21. As a special for the 125th anniversary, tickets for the show will be $1.25 with a BC/CUID. While there were several scenes that dragged on, the wholesome tone of the show and the dynamism of the cast made the performance a glass half-full.
For those going to see the show who do not want to know the plot, there are spoilers in the next two paragraphs.
The plot for this year’s show revolves around attempts by the Dean of Undergraduate Admissions and Financial Aid Jessica Marinaccio, played by Estee Dechtman, BC ’22, to maximize the happiness of Columbia University students by simulating and re-simulating student life, each time changing one aspect of Columbia—a structural premise curiously similar to the NBC show “The Good Place.” After the 124th “Heelys” simulation, in which Columbia required all students to roll around wearing off-brand Heelys, Marinaccio and her assistant Jason, played by Adam Glusker, CC ’21, decide the 125th simulation will ban milk.
However, once again, this alteration of Columbia life fails to make students permanently happy, and Marinaccio decides to wake the students up from the simulation—at which point the students are told they have been sedated and dreaming in the basement of Nussbaum & Wu. By the end of the performance, student Hannah Levine, played by Rachel Greenfeld, BC ’19, manages to persuade the awoken students that Columbia was neither the buildings nor the traditions, but the people and the relationships.
“We were thinking a lot about how people find meaning in college,” director Bridges said. “It’s four years of your life, a set time period, and in the grand scheme of things, it’s not that long. It’s a system we’ve been told to buy into but you try and make it individual to find meaning in your life.”
In the spirit of finding meaning through individual relationships at Columbia, it was the character couples who dominated the most enjoyable moments in the show.
Decked out in orange costumes from a ’90s VHS fitness video, The Couple Who’s Been Together Since NSOP, Venice Ohleyer, CC ’21, and The Couple Who’s Been Together Since NSOP, Harris Solomon, CC ’22—yes, they both had the same bonkers character names—worked incredibly well as a duo in each of their scenes.
When Ohleyer appeared onstage dressed as a cow and Solomon as a milk carton, with a diaper instead of trousers, the bovine sexual dialectic between them was frankly hilarious, with Ohleyer and Solomon whispering sweet “moos” into each other's ears.
The more serious and emotionally tense relationship arc was that of Hannah, played by Greenfeld, and Isabella “Izzy” Morales, played by llana Woldenburg, BC ’20. The couple put a stop to their friendship during the milk simulation, but by the end had reconciled their differences.
The predictability of this arc came off as a little too cliché. Although on theme with finding meaning through personal relationships, the divorce and reconciliation felt too obvious and the scenes of melancholy dragged on.
Nevertheless, the fault was certainly not in the acting of either Greenfeld or Woldenburg. Greenfeld was characteristically charismatic, hopping up and down the stage, maximizing the theatrical space and, from time to time, completely changing the tone and feel of her voice, crackling into the microphone or offering a baby squeal. These change-ups were a particularly refreshing counterpoint to some of the more lethargic scenes.
One relationship that was completely intriguing was between Dean Marinaccio, played by Dechtman, and her assistant Jason Mogen, played by Glusker. Although at the start Jason came off as a vulture looking to pick Dean Marinaccio out of her job, he developed into a multidimensional character with changing desires and outlooks on the nature of his role at Columbia.
When Jason broke the fourth wall in the show, addressing the accompanying band directly, it added an entirely new dimension to his character. Glusker played these moments with aplomb, confidently switching gears from his cold front to his warm interior, constructing an entirely relatable character.
In contrast to the acting, the technical aspects of the set were more stationary than dynamic and, apart from the setup of one scene, were nothing to write home about. Eclipsing the colorfully lit backdrop of the stage was a neat, stencil-cut representation of Low Library and, on the dome of Low, an odd three-pronged glowing object, that resembled a love child of the McDonald's golden arches and a “Star Wars” film.
However, there was one technical detail that was more oddly fascinating than simply odd. During Act 1 Scene 5, titled “Classroom,” one of those impractical, Hamilton Hall-esque tables was placed at the back of the stage, angled downwards toward the audience. Glued onto the piece were coffee cups, books, and files.
The aesthetics created by the specific angling of the table were stunning. Even though the ‘Classroom” scene became irritating, with repetitive jokes about romantic poetry and Columbia English professors, the angled table was simultaneously stylistic and completely suitable.
The spirit that Bridges intended for the 125th Varsity Show came through uniquely in its interpersonal relationships. While there were technicalities that lagged and scenes that dragged, one-on-one relationships were at the heart of this performance. Just as the journeys that every student has during their four-year Columbia stints are crafted individually, the personal relationships and friendships we form are the scaffolds to these journeys. No matter the simulation, the environment, milk or no milk, meaning is crafted by you, with a little bit of help from your friends.
“It’s about making what you will of your time at Columbia,” Bridges said. “You don’t come away with a life fully formed. You tried something and you created meaning by digging in your heels and finding something to be passionate about.”