Saturday, February 9, 2013

Dark Wood

Playwright:  Peter McGarry.
VenueDenver's Dangerous Theatre, 2620 W. 2nd Avenue, Denver, CO  80219.
Date of Performance:  Friday, February 8, 2013
Running Time:  90 minutes (no intermission)

If you venture to a venue named "Denver's Dangerous Theatre" (DDT), you are entitled to expect some edginess, some risk taking, and perhaps some mold breaking.  With Dark Wood, DDT breaks the mainstream entertainment mold and smashes some theatrical "china" as well. 
Fair warning: Dark Wood is not another night at the theater.  The all male cast is naked for the entire performance.  While the nudity is decidedly not erotic, it is nevertheless an element that the audience must deal with immediately.  I should mention that, for good measure, the script is also laced with profanity.  
The pertinent question for a production like "Dark Wood" is whether the risks taken are a) gratuitous or b) justified.  The answer, at least for me, is that the nudity and street language are both justified by the premise of the play.
Patrick Call.  Photo:  DDT
The characters in the play are three undefined primates on display at a zoo.  I see them as orangutans or bonobos, both of which are very intelligent creatures, but the exact species is not necessary to the plot.  

Two of the primates ("Rico," portrayed by Patrick Call, and "Strong Arm," played by Ben Pelayo) were born in captivity; the third (Mbwane, aka Brainard Starling) was captured in the forest.  The play revolves around the comfort of captivity for Rico and Strong Arm and the contrast to Mbwane's lost freedom.
Ben Pelayo.  Photo:  DDT

As the two zoo primates get to know Mbwane, their understanding of their existence is challenged.  They are confronted with difficult questions:  do they simply exist in captivity, or do they live in a different "freedom" from creatures of the forest?  Are they prisoners?  Can they escape?  Should they escape?  Could they live without the "feeders" who feed and care for them?
Brainard Starling.  Photo:  DDT
Mcgarry's script draws its themes from 20th century existentialist philosophers.  Writers like Jean-Paul Sartre explored these same themes; what does it mean to exist, what is our purpose, are we free, and indeed, can we ever be free?  
The beauty of Dark Wood is that it forces the audience to confront their own existence, to ask if their lives have meaning, or whether they are simply captives in a zoo of their own making.  Which side of the cage are we on...the inside or the outside?  The answers are not simple, but the inquiry is valuable.  
The cast here is a strong ensemble, each contributing a different and very distinct "monkey" personality.  Nudity, for actors, is akin to circus performers working without a net.  It is totally honest; one cannot hide any physical or theatrical flaw.  This cast has the courage to expose themselves to ridicule; playing naked monkeys is to potentially turn oneself into the butt of obvious jokes (puns intended).  They take that challenge seriously, even eagerly, and turn those jokes into serious theater.
Dark Wood is certainly not for everybody.  It is for those who are not afraid to give at least as much consideration to their own existential purpose as they do to planning their next vacation.  As Sartre would say, we have freedom, but not everyone takes advantage of it.  
A human being who wakened in the morning with a queezy stomach, with fifteen hours to kill before next bedtime, had not much use for freedom.” 
DDT and Dark Wood deliver on the promise of "dangerous" theater.  If you have the courage of this cast, and if you care to examine your purpose in life instead of killing the 15 hours before bedtime, Dark Wood is your show.

This show runs through April 26, 2013.  
This show is not suitable for children; recommended only for 18 years and up.  This show has extensive nudity. The nudity is natural, rather than erotic or sexual.  Recommended only for mature audiences who can see absorb the message without squirming over the raw, naked delivery.  Remember:  it's not called Denver's Dangerous Theatre for nothing.

Director:  Winnie Wenglewick
Rico:  Patrick Call
Strong Arm:  Ben Pelayo
Mbwane:  Brainard Starling

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Over the Tavern

Playwright:  Tom Dudzick.
Venue:  Longmont Performing Arts Center, 513 Main Street, Longmont, CO  80501.
Company:  Longmont Theatre Company
Date of Performance:  Saturday, February 2, 2013
Running Time:  2 hours, 30 minutes (includes 15 minute intermission)
For those of you who don't remember the 1950's, you probably think it was a time of innocence, simplicity, optimism, and prosperity.  That's partly true, but not completely.  There were conflicts, Communism, the Cold War, a nascent Civil Rights movement, and a host of other social issues.  LIke any time in our history, it was more complicated than we may remember.
Over the Tavern takes us back to those days, and does so with a focus on the innocence and the fun of the period, but also with a revealing take on the forgotten realities of that period.  
The play takes place in the Pazinski home, "over the tavern" the father operates.  With four kids, and a resident alcoholic grandfather, the budget is tight.  Chet Pazinski (portrayed at high volume by Greg Winkler) runs the tavern but is only marginally present as a father.  He suffers from "bad moods" which routinely terrorize the dinner table.  Chet's wife, Ellen (Krystal Jakosky) does her best to protect the family from Chet's rants.
The Pazinski family is Catholic, and the children attend Catholic schools.  That puts them in direct contact with Sister Clarissa (Marian Bennett), the stereotypical mean spirited nun who will rap your knuckles if you don't know your Catechism.
Marian Bennett/Peter Cabrera.  Photo credit:  LTC
The four children are a motley but engaging crew.  Georgie (Ben Neufeld), who is "retarded," is endearing with a simple but adorable personality.  Annie (Montana Lewis), the overweight teen girl with no self esteem, is struggling with her transition in becoming an adult woman.  Eddie (Beau Wilcox) is the teen boy whose primary focus is magazines with naked women. 

And that leaves us, finally, with Rudy (Peter Cabrera), the youngest Pazinski.  
Cabrera is perfect in the "Rudy" role, giving us a mischievous, charming, and articulate foil to Sister Clarissa.  Rudy, it turns out, is not sure he wants to be confirmed as a "soldier for God."  Instead, he's shopping around for a more "fun" religion.  Rudy so confounds and frustrates Sister Clarissa that she actually has a heart attack.
Over the Tavern is a lot of fun; the laughs fly fast and furious throughout the show.  Despite those laughs, you never forget that there are serious issues here, including faith, abuse, and borderline poverty.  It's a serious message delivered with a big helping of humor.
There are four child actors here; all four are outstanding in their roles.  That said, though, it is Peter Cabrera's Rudy who nearly steals the show.  His performance alone is worth the price of a ticket.  He may be only eleven years old, but he's a pro when he walks on the stage.
The show is well done, although a flickering light on the set was distracting.  Those things happen, but that doesn't change the fact that Over the Tavern is a good time for the whole family.  It's a reminder for all of the us that the myths of the 1950s gloss over the unpleasant realities.  Raising kids is very hard work.  It doesn't matter what decade you do it in.

This show runs through February 9, 2013.  Suitable for the whole family.  
Rudy/Peter:  Please keep looking for the "fun" in your life.  Too often we adults neglect to follow your example.
Director:  James Carver
Lighting Designer:  Brian Curtiss
Scenic Design:  James Carver
Sound Design:  James Carver, Chris Parr
Costume Designer:  Judy Ernst
Co-Producers:  Judy Ernst, Tracey Cravens

Sister Clarissa:  Marian Bennett
Rudy Pazinski:  Peter Cabrera
Ellen Pazinski:  Krystal Jakosky
Annie Pazinski:  Montana Lewis
Georgie Pazinski:  Ben Neufeld
Eddie Pazinski:  Beau Wilcox
Chet Pazinski:  Greg Winkler

Monday, February 4, 2013


Playwright:  Michael Hollinger.
VenueDairy Center for the Arts, 2590 Walnut Street, Boulder, CO  80301.
Date of Performance:  Sunday, February 3, 2013
Running Time:  90 minutes (no intermission)
The premise of Ghost-Writer is simple but engaging:  set in 1919, novelist Franklin Woolsey dies in mid sentence while dictating a new novel to Myra, his typist.  She continues to type, and finishes the book months after his death.  From this premise comes a marvelous drama about the process of writing, a forbidden love, and the source of artistic inspiration.
Hollinger's script is a work of rare beauty.  His novelist, Woolsey, is a writer who dotes on the details, the punctuation, and the tone of his work.  Fittingly, so does Hollinger.  He gives us a focused, polished story; every line is essential, not a word is wasted.  The quality of Hollinger's writing is impressive; he has a gift for using an extensive vocabulary without making the actors seem pretentious. 
Director Josh Hartwell is working with an extremely accomplished cast, and he has made the most of their talents.  He mixes dialog with extended pauses, making the creative writing process both visible and credible.  Hartwell's skill with his actors is on full display in two striking scenes:  his staging and lighting of the dance and the last scene are both exquisite.
Laura Norman.  Photo Credit:  BETC
In a sense, this could be considered a one woman show.  Laura Norman is not just the typist; she is the focus and the force on the stage.  She doesn't portray Myra Babbage; she IS Myra Babbage for 90 minutes.  Her gestures and her facial expressions are the visual punctuation for Hollinger's prose.  Her low key delivery deftly reveals Myra's loyalty to Woolsey and her thinly disguised sexual attraction to him.  Norman's final scene is powerful; you will not soon forget the simultaneous grief and relief she displays as the lights go down.
While Babbage/Norman is the focus, both Jim Hunt and Anne Sandoe shine as the Woolsey couple.  Hunt is the stodgy curmudgeon novelist who has a complicated relationship with his typist.  Sandoe is the jealous wife who knows that she is losing her spouse to a rival with whom she cannot compete.  Both bring their A games to their roles.
If you haven't yet figured out how I feel about this performance, let me make it clear.  Ghost-Writer is extraordinary.  Everything here works; lights, sound, set, costumes, actors, director, and script are flawless.  When all these elements come together, the whole is much greater than the sum of the parts.  To say that the experience is rewarding does not begin to convey the power of the performance.  Ghost-Writer is a must see.  Although it's early, I feel I can begin compiling my "Best of" list for 2013.   Ghost-Writer will be competing for a top spot on that list.
If you haven't noticed, the Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company is having an outstanding seasonGhost-Writer has a short run (it closes on February 16).  If you can't make it by then, try to get to one of the coming attractions.  They look very promising.
In conclusion, if you've seen the play, you know that Ghost-Writer has given me a suitable phrase to conclude my thoughts here:  
"Well, I suppose that's about it..."
This show runs through February 16, 2013.  There's nothing here that would be objectionable for children, but the subject matter would not interest most kids.  The discussion of whether an apostrophe is correctly used would probably send them running to the parking lot.  
One of the unintended benefits of Ghost-Writer is the effect it had on composing this post.  I can assure all readers that I have very carefully reviewed my spelling, punctuation, and grammar before posting.  If anyone would like to dispute the use of an apostrophe or a semi-colon, please leave me a comment.  I'd love to have that discussion...
Photo Credits:  BETC
Director:  Josh Hartwell
Set Design:  Megan Chaney
Lighting Design:  Kerry Cripe
Sound Design:  Andrew Metzroth
Costume Designer:  Brenda King
Myra Babbage:  Laura Norman
Franklin Woolsey:  Jim Hunt
Vivian Woolsey:  Anne Sandoe