Review: YouTopia (Vertical City)

Vertical City’s YouTopia is an intellectually stimulating and visually striking theatrical experience playing at Toronto’s Glen Morris Studio Theatre


The set of YouTopia is a stylish and evocative contraption that overwhelmed me as I took my seat in the Glen Morris Studio Theatre.  It towers over the audience, this haphazard grid that serves as a mechanism for the sustained existence—not quite life—of our three characters:  Kiran, The Engineer and AL.

Kiran is trapped in an arduous cycle of repetition.  The structure of her daily routine is sustained by the voice of AL (a computer).  She pulls herself along the steel bars of her world and must balance precariously in various parts of the set.  AL talks to her throughout—a time-keeper, a monitor, a friend. Kiran, eventually growing dissatisfied with her banal existence, begins to challenge AL.

The experience of this production goes something like this:  Kiran leaps and slithers around the steel bars of the set and talks to her computer friend AL while the Engineer manipulates various set pieces with an intricate pulley system. The dialogue is repetitious and illustrates the mundane nature of her existence.  Woven into the dialogue, are recorded passages where a disembodied voice discusses ideas of power and freedom.

The specifics of this world are only vaguely suggested, but I picked up on the notion of some technological experiment gone awry.  Bruce Barton’s text and staging are evocative of human fragility amid the cold structures we’ve created to aid and protect us.  Sherri Hay‘s haunting set furthers this notion of humanity trapped in a self-constructed web and suspended above an abyss.

Kiran Friesen is agile and I was captivated by her physical endurance.  She paints a convincing portrait of a determined woman frustrated by a restrictive system of living that does not allow for sensual pleasures.  Her longing for solid floors, rain and birdsong is almost tangible.

As the presence of AL, Matthew Tapscott’s voice is an eerily perfect blend of robotic indifference and hypnotic cadences.

I was least invested in Adam Paolozza as the Engineer.  I don’t mean to suggest that his performance was weak; his text just never establishes much of a personality and his existence within the play seems mainly structural.

On the whole, it was hard for me to invest in the plight of these characters because of the weird dynamic between actor and audience. The light is dim and faces are often obscured by the set.  The alienating effect is intentional, but there is only so much of it I can take before I go numb.

My companion, who is familiar with more traditional forms of theatrical presentation, found it all rather inaccessible.  However, the aesthetic of the set and the thematic concerns of the text did reach him on some level.  It reminded him of Terry Gilliam’s dystopian film Brazil—relentlessly bleak with decayed structures towering over fragile human forms.

For me, theatre requires an intimacy between audience and performer that is strained here.  I was intrigued by the ideas and innovative staging, but was emotionally detached from most of it. Despite some heartrending moments as Kiran struggles to reclaim her humanity, thereby perplexing AL’s programming, there is little in the way of conventional drama.

If you’re up for a high-concept, intellectually stimulating, visually striking theatrical experience, you’ll find it here:  YouTopia is cerebral, sometimes poignant and intensely physical, but it may not satisfy those who want explicit drama.


  • YouTopia is playing at the Glen Morris Studio Theatre (4 Glen Morris Street) until September 22
  • Show runs Tuesday-Saturday at 8pm, with Sunday matinees at 2pm
  • General tickets are $20, with $15 tickets for Students, Seniors and Arts Workers
  • Tickets can be purchased through TOTix

Photo of Kiran Friesen and Adam Paolozza by Bruce Barton