Jeff Jardine

Modesto arch commandeered for commodious comedy

2006 Downey High grad Britton Mauk is a professional theater set designer now living and working in Pittsburgh. He incorporated Modesto’s Arch into the set for the Pittsburgh Playhouse production of the musical comedy “Urinetown,” which concludes its run Sunday .
2006 Downey High grad Britton Mauk is a professional theater set designer now living and working in Pittsburgh. He incorporated Modesto’s Arch into the set for the Pittsburgh Playhouse production of the musical comedy “Urinetown,” which concludes its run Sunday . Britton Mauk

Modesto’s beloved downtown arch certainly gets its share of attention, from a mention recently in National Geographic to being a featured identifying landmark in an episode of the HBO series “Looking,” taped here in late October.

The arch also will appear in a Modesto-set ABC drama titled “American Crime” and is used as a backdrop in local TV news reports, tourism brochures and just about anything else linked to the city.

But this past week, the arch and its “Water Wealth Contentment Health” slogan went on display in, of all places, Pittsburgh, as scenery in the Pittsburgh Playhouse production of the musical comedy “Urinetown.”

Really?

Yesirree. Turns out Britton Mauk, a 2006 Downey High graduate, designed and built the sets for the show and brought a little bit of his hometown along for effect. Mauk, 26, found his future in theater after being involved in drama programs during his junior and senior years at Downey. He went on to earn his undergraduate degree at California Institute of the Arts in Valencia and his master’s in set design from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh in 2013.

Mauk has designed the sets for presentations of “Les Miserables,” “Dames At Sea” and “Mary Poppins” in West Virginia, and “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” in Columbus, Ohio. But he seems to have found a home in Pittsburgh, where he’s designed for numerous shows, with “Frida,” “Night of the Living Dead” and “Of Mice and Men” among more well-known productions. He’s also working on “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” also in Pittsburgh.

“I really liked Pittsburgh and stayed there,” he said. “It has a rich theater and film industry, and I stay really busy.”

When he visited parents Edith and Robert Mauk in Modesto in August, he came home to a state parched by a three-year drought. He returned to Pittsburgh and signed on to design the sets for “Urinetown,” the plot of which focuses on a water shortage so extreme that private toilets are banned and public toilets are run by a private company called “Urine Good Company.”

“Masses huddle in line, desperate to use Public Amenity Number 9, one of the poorest, filthiest urinals in town, run by Penny Pennywise and her assistant, young everyman Bobby Strong,” one online site describes the story line. “Trouble ensues when Bobby’s father, Joseph ‘Old Man’ Strong, can’t afford his urinal admission fee for the day. When Old Man Strong asks Pennywise to let him go for free just this once, Penny is forced to draw the line in (the song) ‘It’s a Privilege to Pee.’”

There is no way I could make this up. Those who did picked up three Tony Awards in 2002 and numerous other honors over the years.

The show, which concludes Sunday, chides Broadway itself. It teases “Les Miserables,” “Three Penny Opera,” “The Cradle Will Rock” and other hit shows.

“They poke fun at everybody,” Mauk said. “Serious statements, all made in the light of comedy. No one’s safe. There are scenes where the owner of Urine Good Company is talking to a congressman, saying ‘Take this (bill) to the legislature and you’ll get a big pile of cash and a trip to Rio (de Janeiro).’ It’s a statement about what’s going on today. It might not be a favorite to a lot of people, but it’s what’s going on in our country.”

Modesto’s arch fits the show perfectly because of its slogan, Mauk said.

“The drought goes along with ‘Water’ and ‘Contentment,’” he said. Plenty of the former leads to the latter. “And ‘Health’ goes along with being able to go to the bathroom.”

“Wealth” of course, belongs to Urine Good Company, which raises the price of using its facilities.

Of course, the name “Modesto” atop the arch is replaced by “Urinetown.” But make no mistake about it: It’s the Modesto Arch, adapted for the show, and it lights up just like the one downtown.

And for all of the times the arch has been used to showcase Modesto, Mauk is no doubt the first to commandeer it for a comedy about a commode.

“Cheeky,” he calls it.

Bee columnist Jeff Jardine can be reached at jjardine@modbee.com or (209) 578-2383. Follow him on Twitter @JeffJardine57.

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