If it’s not funny enough already that the protagonists of Yeast Nation are literally single-celled yeasts, or that our musical is set three billion years ago on the floor of the ocean, or that these yeasts have emotion, community, history, and power struggles, or that the two central plot lines of our show parallel Antigone and Macbeth…
If all that isn’t enough… There’s yet another very funny element that will probably pass right by most of our audience. What may be the craziest aspect of this epic, twisted fable is that all the weirdest details of our story are biologically accurate.
Several times during the story, we witness a yeast die by “popping open” (or being popped open) and having their “jellies” spill out. We found out the process of cell death is called apoptosis. We’ve also learned that single-celled organisms don’t die naturally; they just keep splitting and making new cells. But they can die by being “eaten” by other cells. Which happens in our show.
On the website LiveScience, I found this: “Researchers at Rockefeller University have discovered that some cells rip themselves apart bit-by-bit in order to attract certain specialized proteins in phagocytes that will gobble them up and carry them away.”
Late in Act I of Yeast Nation, in an attempt to drive a wedge between the King and his son Jan-the-Second-Oldest, the King’s counselor Jan-the-Wise, and the King’s daughter Jan-the-Sly make a (disingenuous) plea for conservatism:
Stasis is the membrane
That keeps the yeasts together,
Through all kinds of weather,
In storm as well as calm.
With harmony our bedrock,
And brotherhood our basis,
Stasis is our membrane!
Stasis is our balm!
Weird lyric, no?
Well, keep in mind these are yeasts singing this. For these single-celled creatures, stasis is the inhibition of cell growth and reproduction. And for these particular yeasts in our story, more yeasts mean less food, so no increase in population is important. (Like Urinetown, this is another story about resources!) It’s not just important; it’s a matter of life and death. A static population is their protection; or if you were a yeast speaking metaphorically, you might say it’s their membrane, since the membrane is a cell’s outer layer of protection, which keeps all their “jellies” from spilling out (that’s their form of death).
As one guy on Quora put it, “As to how death looks like for unicellular organisms, really, we don’t know. The best measure we have is whether they are able to maintain their membrane integrity. It takes an active effort to keep water from leaking into the cell, so when they can’t do that anymore, they ‘blow up’ and die.”
So yes, literally, the membrane “keeps the yeasts together,” and here it’s also a yeasty metaphor for the protection of zero population growth, which helps the food not run out, so the community can stay together. “Harmony” is literally their bedrock, because when the yeasts all sing that line, they sing it in harmony; in fact, they sing in harmony throughout the show. And actual brotherhood is literally their “basis” since they are all children of Jan-the-Elder.
Earlier in the show the King, Jan-the-Elder, complains, “Once my rules were adhered to without question. Now we must butcher our own kind to maintain my beloved stasis. I only want things to stay more or less the same for all eternity! Is that too much to ask?!” He sounds like American conservatives longing for a return to the 1950s.
What I love about Greg Kotis and Mark Hollmann’s writing is that the crazy dialogue and lyrics really do come from the point of view of yeasts. The metaphors are metaphors yeasts would use. You can just picture “Stasis Is the Membrane That Keeps the Yeasts Together” embroidered on a yeast sampler hanging over a yeast mantelpiece.
And sure, that’s what writers are supposed to do, write in the character’s voice, right? But did I mention these characters are all single-celled yeasts? It’s a good thing Kotis and Hollmann are as crazy as they are, or this would be a much less interesting, less engaging piece of theatre. Their fierce protection of their story’s interior logic makes this ancient, microscopic world both real and somehow weirdly familiar to us.
After all, parents and children are still parents and children, even if they’re microscopic yeasts. Okay, that’s not really true at all. But it’s true in our story.
Back in the song, Jan-the-Famished is already in some yeastly trouble herself, so of course she joins in Sly’s creepy yeast patriotism, singing:
Stasis is a feeling,
A powerful sensation,
That all things in creation
Know deep down to the core.
When life gets too uncertain,
Without a firm oasis,
Stasis gives the sense that
We’ll live forever more!
Which is literally true, since single-celled organisms don’t die naturally. Then Sly and Famished sing the chorus together, and it starts to remind me of a funhouse mirror of “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” in Cabaret. Then Jan-the-Wise joins in on the propaganda/philosophy/patriotism:
We’re a simple life form,
A fragile bag of jelly.
Without salt in our belly
We simply cease to be.
So let’s obey the strictures,
And listen to our betters.
Fretters are repugnant
To those who rule the sea!
In other words, do what you’re told and shut up. It’s what every oppressed minority throughout history has been told. We know better, the authorities tell them.
Later in the show, two of our yeast heroes bond together and create the first multi-celled organism. The LiveScience website says, “The first transition from simple, single-celled organisms to cooperating groups of cells is believed to have occurred a little over 2 billion years ago. This multicellular arrangement was a step toward more complex organisms, like us, who possess different types of cells for different functions, such as red blood cells capable of carrying oxygen around our bodies.”
Who knew this crazy musical-tragedy-political-thriller-satire is also a stealth biology lesson? I can’t really say I’m surprised. I’m sure there are plenty more delicious, fucked-up surprises awaiting us. We start blocking next week! So much fun ahead…
Long Live the Musical!
from The Bad Boy of Musical Theatre http://newlinetheatre.blogspot.com/2018/04/stasis-is-membrane-that-keeps-yeasts.html