In recent weeks, I've been immersed in despair, disease and death – and that's just this Halloween's haunted attractions, leaving aside 2020's litany of real-life horrors. So, this past weekend I sought something lighthearted to lift my dampened spirits, and the Creative City Project's Bright Young Things appeared to be a bubbly balm. With a sunny title evoking Jazz Age bohemians and perpetually positive producer Cole NeSmith providing creative direction, I entered into this site-specific theatrical experience simply seeking a shiny distraction from our dire present moment.
It's a good thing that I neglected to read the fine print in advance, because although Bright Young Things turned out to be far darker and more topical than I anticipated, it was also the most electrifying evening of live entertainment I've enjoyed since the pandemic started.
For Bright Young Things, writer-director Donald Rupe (From Here) has imagined an alternate history in which the Prohibition of alcohol never ended, an oppressive President who refuses to accept the results of the "last great election" and a fractured America ruled by fascist fundamentalists. Various factions struggle for control of the city, with government agents trying to disrupt smugglers, while members of a resistance plot to overthrow the authoritarian mayor. This intricate web of intersecting interests and secret relationships would be impossible to explain in any ordinary stage production. Indeed, each audience member at BYT will only get a fraction of the full picture, depending on which of four possible paths they decide to follow.
The adventure starts shortly after you select your storyline during the ticket purchasing process and begin receiving messages from a character you'll soon meet. I opted to observe "The Lovers," which depicts a couple of star-crossed Romeos through interpretive dance choreographed by Kathleen Wessel; a friend of mine joined "The Agents" in unraveling a genetic mystery, while others followed the musical "Entertainers" or action-oriented "Smugglers." We all began the evening together in a smoky, neon-soaked cocktail party (in reality, the alleyway behind CityArts), and ended it together at the History Center to witness a somewhat clunky choreographed brawl that was equal parts WWE and West Side Story.
In between, separate socially distanced squads of about eight audience members each followed a different actor around downtown, intersecting with other groups as various characters interacted in some of Orlando's most architecturally interesting locations. My group, which was ably guided by Blake Aburn, briskly marched from the steps of City Hall to the First United Methodist Church rotunda, then to the Orange County Administration Center's sculpture garden. At each of our stops, performers Adonus Mabry and Pedro Vargas Jr. played out their doomed love affair through athletic contemporary dance and elliptical romantic poetry. While their dialogue was delivered in the affected, stilted style of a 1920s melodrama, the emotional honesty of their characters' hunger and heartbreak came through clearly in Vargas' and Mabry's muscular yet tender movement.
NeSmith and Rupe crafted this show on relatively short notice, once it became clear that Creative City Project's annual IMMERSE street fair could not be held this weekend as planned. Rupe told me that although the complicated script was written quickly, it drew on his longtime interests in dystopian fiction and real-life speakeasy manager Texas Guinan. At the risk of being blasphemous, although I miss the big festival, I actually enjoyed this pandemic-born alternative more. To me, last year's IMMERSE felt overcrowded, overwhelming and increasingly commercial, whereas Bright Young Things is intimate, accessible and authentically personal.
With its alternate-reality premise, timely themes and innovative format, Bright Young Things has all the necessary ingredients for an amazing experience, but during my performance Mother Nature decided to contribute a little something extra in the form of torrential rain. A deluge that might have drowned out a lesser artist instead propelled Mabry to magical new heights, as he continued passionately declaiming Rupe's lovelorn verses in the middle of Rosalind Avenue heedless of the downpour. The event producers (who warn attendees up front to bring umbrellas) profusely apologized for the wretched weather, but there was no need for them to; I couldn't have planned on a better performance to attend, even if it turned out to be the polar opposite of the ray of sunshine I initially expected.
If you've haven't had the chance to experience Bright Young Things for yourself yet – or if you want to return again and experience a different path, like I do – you're in luck: The run, which was scheduled to end Oct. 24, is being extended for an additional month. Visit creativecityproject.com/brightyoungthings for tickets and more information.