When Olivia Custodio first moved to Utah from New York City about a decade ago, she struggled to adjust. “At first, I will be honest, I hated it,” she admits. “I didn’t feel like I had a community.” It wasn’t until she started performing at Salt Lake Acting Company that Custodio began to feel at home while finding an artistic community. She has performed regularly at SLAC in the past several years and served in different staff roles, including the theater’s director of development. Now, Custodio is back at SLAC exploring the good, bad and ugly of Utah life as the head writer, along with collaborators Emilio Casillas and Michael Leavitt, of SLACabaret: Down the Rabbit Hole.
This is the second year of SLACabaret, which replaced Saturday’s Voyeur, an annual Salt Lake Acting Company tradition for more than four decades. Saturday’s Voyeur, a parody of the ‘70s Mormon-themed musical Saturday’s Warrior, was updated yearly and poked fun at Utah culture, politics and, especially, religion. SLACabaret, through exaggerated characters, song parodies and cabaret-inspired numbers, also satirizes life in the Beehive State. Last year’s production, written by Martine Kei Green-Rogers, Aaron Swenson and Amy Wolk, followed four very different Utahns trapped in the new Salt Lake City International Airport. (Custodio herself gave a memorable performance in the production as, among other roles, a clueless white liberal woman named Caren.) For the second SLACabaret, Custodio dives headfirst into a world that mystifies both locals and outsiders alike—the multilevel marketing essential oils industry.
Custodio says that when she first moved to Utah, she found the prevalence of MLMs especially confusing. “I don’t understand what people are looking for there,” she thought to herself. “I don’t understand the massive, multibillion-dollar appeal of these industries.” For those who haven’t drunk the MLM Kool-Aid, the entire culture can seem like a fantasy world. This inspired Custodio to set this show at an essential oils convention and thread the production with an Alice in Wonderland theme. “Everyone entering the convention is entering this kind of otherworldly experience,” she explains. It makes sense, then, that the characters in SLACabaret, including a misfit Provo housewife, cash-strapped BYU students and a couple who hopes the right essential oil will save their marriage, go down a literal rabbit hole.
There’s plenty of material to satirize, from the questionable business practices of MLM to the dubious health claims of essential oil hawkers, but don’t expect SLACabaret to take cheap shots. “I think attacking a group of people for their beliefs is a little boring,” Custodio says. The show is still a comedy, but Custodio, Casillas and Leavitt take the characters seriously—and want audiences to as well. “My job was to find the humanity of each of these people and what they were going through,” she says. In the familiar character archetypes, Custodio hopes that audience members find someone to relate to—even if they (hopefully) won’t start selling snake oil to their Facebook friends anytime soon.
Custodio, who has written a digital short for SLAC and a one-act play for Plan-B Theatre, has also acted in both SLACabaret and Saturday’s Voyeur. For this production, she is on the other side of the stage, collaborating on the script with Casillas and unleashing her inner teenage Weird Al fan to create the music with Leavitt. Watching the performers rehearse has been gratifying for Custodio. “When you give [the production] over to living, breathing people, they do things that are so unexpected and so much better than what you imagined,” she says.
In SLACabaret, Custodio wants to “talk about all the different parts of what living in Utah is like. Some people hate it, some people love it, some people are in the middle and there’s a whole spectrum to play with.” It was a rough start, but after finding a group of like-minded artists, Custodio has ultimately come to appreciate her adopted home state. “Finding that community has made me love Utah so much…I never thought I would still be here 10 years later,” she says.
SLACabaret: Down the Rabbit Hole will be at Salt Lake Acting Company from July 13-Aug. 21. For tickets and more information, visit SLAC’s website.