TAMPA — The day after government water regulators approved the tightest usage restrictions in Tampa Bay history, reducing the hours for lawn sprinkling and banning ornamental fountains and residential car washing and just about everything short of drawing a bath, the stage is set for Tampa Bay Tech Senior High's production of Urinetown.
The cast and crew have been working eight weeks toward tonight, running lines, building sets, blocking. They're in their places now, on an apropos evening, waiting for the curtain.
But there's something else going on here. Something besides a play.
The music rises. Lights go up.
Grand, limitless delusions of the 1990s, exit stage left.
Enter tragic realism.
• • •
Urinetown is set in Anywhere, U.S.A., a city reeling from a 20-year drought. Private toilets have been banned. Caldwell B. Cladwell, the greedy CEO of the Urine Good Company, has monopolized the public urinals and charges a fee to pee.
The poor wait in line at the filthiest trough, Public Amenity No. 9. As water grows scarce, a fee hike makes urination unaffordable. The poor find a hero in Bobby Strong, a janitor. Bobby leads them to revolt, kill the CEO, and pee for free. But the good times don't last. Without restrictions, the water supply runs dry.
So silly. Right?
• • •
"When I first heard we were doing Urinetown, I thought, 'This is perfect.' "
That's Elizabeth Margarito, cast as a poor girl.
"We're not far away from Urinetown. People could be paying to pee sooner than we might think. They could be setting up the amenities in public parks."
The cast is darting around before the show, checking makeup, placing props, fretting about the environment. Seriously.
"The Earth is really crying, you know?" says Jake Anderson, 17, who plays Tiny Tom. "Our resources are drying up."
If the generations of boom-time high schoolers before them were concerned about Mustangs or Air Jordans or Swatches, these kids are decidedly different. Now it's reusable water bottles, patches and canvas bags in the hallways at Tampa Bay Tech, a magnet school for technology.
"I wash my hair two to three times a month," says 14-year-old Asia Smith. No one laughs or calls her Stinky Head.
Kaitlan Corsell turns 17 next week, but she's not getting her license. She prefers to walk.
Jake Anderson: "If it's yellow, I let it mellow."
"It's ghetto," says Alicia Jiles, "but my mom put fake shrubbery in the front yard. The kind you get from the Dollar Store."
Silence. Heads nodding. Approval.
• • •
In 1798, a British scholar named Thomas Malthus published a paper called An Essay on the Principle of Population. In Chapter 1, Malthus makes two postulates:
1. Food is necessary to the existence of man.
2. Man likes sex. Always has, always will.
The problem, then, is that food production is linear, while population growth is exponential.
This equation sets the stage for something called a Malthusian catastrophe, when there are too many humans to live in harmony with the Earth's resources.
• • •
"Every decade or so, there's a thing," says Elizabeth Margarito, standing in front of the stage. "This is our thing. Water."
Which pits the teens against the adults and pits the poor against money, against the green lawns on Bayshore Boulevard, against all of Tampa's Caldwell B. Cladwells.
"People are trying to make their yards look pretty when our water is drying up," says Arielle Imhoff. "Is your lawn going to be important when you don't have anything to drink?"
Not so fast, says Jamey Feshold. He plays Cladwell, and after eight weeks of rehearsal, he slips easily into first person.
"I was right," he says. "I was right the whole time for charging the fees."
Trevor Campbell cuts him off.
"The thing was you took all that money and went to Rio. You needed to take all that money and put it into research to find new sources of water."
"But what I was doing was controlling consumption," Feshold says.
"Controlling consumption through the regulating mechanism of cash," Campbell says.
"Exactly," Feshold says. "It's not a lack of water that's at the core of the show, it's greed."
"We all want bigger and better," Campbell says.
Naveen Chinthapally has been listening quietly. He's a lighting guy and sits up in the booth.
"This is nothing new," he says. "You think about world history, and all the societies that have fallen — the Romans, the Byzantines, whatever — the circumstances are the same. They were greedy. They consumed too much. And now we're greedy. But greed has consequences."
A little guy named Jonathan Alicea pipes up.
"We're all gonna die."
• • •
Backstage now, a few minutes to showtime.
"The show refers to Malthus," says Jorge Bolanos, 18, who plays Bobby Strong. "People didn't believe him. They thought he was crazy. But now we see that oil is running short. And water is just another resource. It's not infinite."
Karen Thorla is standing nearby. She plays the lead female role, Cladwell's daughter Hope, an idealistic girl who falls in love with Bobby Strong.
"I take 30-minute showers," Karen says.
The others gasp.
"Look, I care, but I'm just lazy. To me, the most important thing about this show is that there has to be a balance between the way the government enforces its rules and fees and individual and social responsibility. There are so many people out there who are either big business, big business, big business, or environment, environment, environment, and the thing is, you have to have both. The show proves that if there's only big business, there's corruption and greed, but if the populism gets out of control, it's chaos. You can't just run around and pee wherever you want."
In the bathroom a few minutes later, just before the curtain is raised, a man pulls up to the urinal. He flushes once before he goes, once after.
Ben Montgomery can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8650.