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Tuesday, July 26, 2016

The History Room





Playwright:  Charlie Thurston


Venue:  Ruth Humphreys Brown Theatre, 120 South Main Street, Creede, Colorado 81130

Running time:  2 hours, 5 minutes (includes 15 minute intermission).

Date of Performance:  Saturday, July 23, 2016. 


This is a World Premiere production of the Creede Repertory Theatre’s Headwaters New Play Program.

It’s a new work and it’s a World Premiere.  There’s something magical about that.  With no expectations beyond a one paragraph blurb in the program, everyone comes to The History Room with no biases, no preconceived notions, and few expectations.  All that changes immediately as the show begins.

A latecomer rushes in just before the curtain; the ushers have already closed the doors.  He’s looking for his seat in the second row, but doesn’t find it.  He looks at his ticket again and sees that his seat is in the front row.  He sits down just as the lights go down.  When they come back up, he gets out of his seat, walks onto the stage, and starts to tell his story…the best he can remember it.

Stuart Rider as Steve.
His name is Steve, and he’s in the history room.  He’s also in The History Room.  In fact, he’s the central character, a man with a mission but carrying a boat load of doubt and guilt.  He starts to explain why he’s going to kill his long-time female friend.  It’s because she made him promise to kill her if she gets dementia like her mother.

As the story unfolds, this opening scene is reenacted multiple times as Steve remembers the moment he promised to commit murder.  Whether those memories are accurate is debatable.  

It’s hard to know, as a reviewer, whether the playwright (Charlie Thurston) or the Director (Pesha Rudnick) put Steve in the front row to begin the show.  Whoever did it, it was brilliant.  Steve is one of us.  He’s still one of us even after he takes the stage.

I may not know for sure who put Steve in the audience, but I do know this:  Thurston’s script is superb storytelling. It’s a multi-level story, covering issues of grief, loss, love, and the deep seated unspoken guilt in being a caregiver for a dying loved one.  Despite the depth of these issues, Thurston somehow manages to inject some laughs into these very dark places.  The humor is not the message; it’s the salve that helps us deal with the deep wounds of grief and loss. 

Thurston’s script makes excellent use of music.  Pink Moon (a 1972 track by British singer/songwriter Nick Drake) is used repeatedly to stimulate Helen’s lost memories.  Likewise, The Beatles tune With a Little Help From My Friends brings Helen much joy, even if the memories are still remote.  Lyrically, the song reinforces the caregiver theme, reminding us that there are always going to be times when we’ll need “a little help from my friends.”  There are times when music can literally trigger memories that take us back to an earlier time in our lives.  Thurston has baked that trigger into The History Room.

The History Room benefits greatly from the accomplished cast.  Stuart Rider plays Steve with an authentic sincerity.  He extends his 10 seconds in the front row to 2 hours of being a protagonist we know personally.  We know him, and like him, because he’s just like us. 

Graham Ward as Peter.
Graham Ward does his best acting in The History Room without saying a single word.  Think about that…it’s remarkable.  He elicits laughs.  He taunts.  He pleads.  He dies a dramatic stage death (actually, several) and brings the house down.  No words are spoken, but Ward steals the scene every time he plays Peter.

Kate Berry (Young Helen/Jeanne) is rock steady as Young Helen, replaying the opening scene every time with precision.  Seriously, it’s like watching a video.  Every detail (the blocking, the timing, the lines, the expressions) is perfect every time.  Berry really comes to life, though, as Jeanne.  A confident, successful woman, she inserts
Kate Berry as Young Helen.
herself into her mother’s life, reversing the roles.  She becomes the parent, her mother becomes the child.  Jeanne won’t admit it, but Berry shows it to us:  she feels guilty because she has neglected her parents.  She tries to make up for the neglect in a single but doomed attempt at being a caregiver.  All those in the audience who have been care givers can relate to Berry’s tortured attempt to redeem herself from her self inflicted guilt.

Ron Clark as Robert is as real a human being as ever took a stage.  Clark embodies the essence of a care giver, to the point where I started seeing myself in him.  Clark deftly displays the urgency of giving care to a loved one, if only to atone for his negligence in the past.  What really hit home for me, though, is his devotion.  His focus is on Helen, to the utter and complete detriment of his own health.  For me, it was like looking in a mirror.  I have walked a mile in his shoes, and I’m certain I’m not alone.
Ron Clark as Robert.


It is Christy Brandt, though, whose star shines brightest in The History Room.  Brandt plays Helen, an aging woman losing control due to her Alzheimer’s disease.  Brandt is alternately confused and lucid.  She’s in decline, but still in a cognitive purgatory.  Balancing the extremes of Helen’s condition is a delicate dance for Brandt.  It turns out that she can dance very well, turning in a performance that is familiar, feisty, charming, and always riveting. There’s not a false note or flaw in any line she delivers.  Whether she’s losing control of her bodily functions or fiercely fighting against going to a care facility, Brandt always reminds us of the strongest women in our lives.  We love those strong women.  We want to give them the care they deserve, even when it infuriates them. 
Christy Brandt as Helen.

Pesha Rudnick’s direction is both subtle and strong.  She uses wind chimes (sound design by Jake Harbour) to symbolize significant memories.  It’s a perfect audio symbol for those memories.  Rudnick literally hangs those memories onstage; a brilliant device to remind us that we are in the history room.  The talk back after the show was remarkable for what Rudnick did not say.  In my experience, directors love to talk about their work.  Rudnick said nothing for the entire twenty minutes, letting her actors do all the talking for her.  That level of restraint and respect for actors is commendable.

Thurston covers a lot of ground in The History Room.  So much so that it can’t all be summarized easily here.  Suffice it to say that he made me think about profound matters:  the guilt I experienced after losing my late wife, the loss of control that we all will face eventually, and even what Salvador Dali was showing us in his masterpiece “Persistence of Memory.”  Thurston reminds us that memory is much more subjective than we realize.  Distorted by time and experience, memories may be to truth as Dali’s painting is to reality.  

"Persistence of Memory," Salvador Dali, 1931.
I can’t remember (pun intended) the last time a play generated so much deep thinking for me in the days after the performance.  Thurston provokes important questions for all of us, and expects us to find our own answers.  Perhaps the most important question I asked myself after seeing The History Room is how do I want to be treated if I have untreatable dementia?

You might want to ask yourself the same question.

When I walked into the Ruth Humphreys Brown Theater, I had few expectations.  When I walked out, I realized that no matter what expectations I might have had, they would have been greatly exceeded by this production of The History Room.


NOTES:

The words The History Room do not appear in the script, save for the title.  Normally, I find that annoying.  In this case, there is no need to say those words on the stage.  There is never a question where the play takes place.  It’s in the history room.

Creede is about 4 hours from Colorado Springs and 4.5 hours from Denver.  That makes a trip to Creede a big commitment if you live on the front range.  Still, there is little doubt that the rewards are well worth the trip.  We made a mini vacation out of the trip, spending the weekend at the Arbor House Bed & Breakfast (highly recommende) in South Fork.  If you’re serious about theater, and serious about the best theaters in Colorado, you need to get to Creede.  

This show closes on September 15, 2016.

Photo Credit:  Creede Repertory Theatre & John Gary Brown, photographer.

TICKETS HERE:  


CREATIVE TEAM:

Director:  Pesha Rudnick

Scenic Designer:  Kathryn Kawecki

Costume Designer:  Kathryn Kawecki

Lighting Designer:  Jacob Welch

Sound Designer:  Jake K. Harbour

Stage Manager:  Jean Egdorf

Assistant Stage Manager:  Lucas Bareis-Golumb


CAST:

Steve:  Stuart Rider

Young Steve/Peter:  Graham Ward

Young Helen/Jeanne:  Kate Berry

Robert:  Ron Clark

Helen:  Christy Brandt


Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Intimate Apparel





Playwright:  Lynn Nottage

Venue:  Vintage Theatre, 1468  Dayton Street, Aurora, CO.

Running Time:  2 hours, 30 minutes (includes 15 minute intermission)

Date of Performance:  Friday, June 8, 2016. 

Lynn Nottage has an impressive resume; she won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 2009 for her play Ruined.  Prior to Ruined, Nottage established herself as a breakout playwright with Intimate Apparel.   That play debuted in 2003 and won a Drama Desk Award (Outstanding Actress, Viola Davis), the Steinberg New Play Award, and an Outer Critics Circle Award for Nottage’s script. 

I can confirm that Ms. Nottage has more than earned those awards.  Intimate Apparel is a magnificent script that could be a template for a Master Class in storytelling.  The title is a reference to the character Esther, who is an African American seamstress who makes “intimate apparel” for both hookers and society women.  It’s 1905, she’s single, 35 years old, and living in a New York City rooming house.  Dreary as her life may be, she has a plan:  she wants to open a beauty salon, and has stuffed a significant amount of her wages in her quilt to do so.

Like a lot of dreamers, though, life gets in the way of her dream.  She has a pen pal named George Armstrong, a laborer on the Panama Canal.  His manual labor is more like a prison sentence than a job.  His letters to Esther are romantic, poetic, and deeply deceitful.  Esther is warned about a long distance love affair, but George is a seductive guy on paper, and Esther can’t resist the charm of his letters.

Lisa Young (Esther).
Lisa Young plays Esther as if she’s on a mission from God.  Young turns in a heartbreaking performance, punctuating her lines with nonverbal flashes of emotion.  Whether it’s a wink, a nod, an eye roll, or a gasp, Young lovingly portrays Esther’s every emotion as if it were her own.  She can be shy.  She can be angry.  She can be tender. She can be appalled.  Young rides Esther’s emotional roller coaster with her hands in the air and love in her heart.  

There are two men in Esther's life; George Armstrong (Cris Davenport) is obviously one of them.  Mr. Marks (Seth Maisel) is the other.  Both are splendid actors, and both turn in achingly honest performances.

Cris Davenport (George).
Cris Davenport is a sincere, romantic gentleman in the first act, giving the audience every reason to believe that he is a marvelous match for Esther.  Davenport’s delivery, as he reads his letters to Esther, is dripping with sincerity.  In the second act, he turns his character around, becoming a boozing, gambling womanizer who takes advantage of anyone and everyone.  Esther is a victim, but certainly not the first nor the last to be betrayed by the creep that Davenport creates.  At the end of the show, the cast received a standing ovation.  Davenport got booed.  That’s how good his performance was.  He played a contradictory characters so convincingly that the audience didn’t forgive him when the lights went up.  That, in my experience is unusual.

Seth Maisel (Mr. Marks).
Seth Maisel, on the other hand, plays Mr. Marks with total honesty.  He’s a Russian immigrant, Jewish, and working as a fabric merchant in the New York City garment districtMaisel’s Russian accent is spot on.  Esther shops in his store, and he always finds her the best fabrics and gives her his best price.  Maisel has a special chemistry with Young; the two are mutual admirers who cannot reveal their attraction to each other.  It’s a delicate dance, a pas de deux, that Maisel and Young carry off like dancers from the Bolshoi Ballet.  That they can never be a couple is heartbreaking.

The entire cast is strong.  Allison Learned is a polished socialite (Mrs. VanBuren) who yearns for some sexual adventure.  Colette Brown brings a matronly touch to Mrs. Dickson, Esther’s landlord.  Simone St. John is a happy hooker in high demand, but she winds up in a doomed emotional threesome.  Taken together, the cast weaves a convincing story of class, sex, race, religion, and social mobility that is at once both discouraging and compelling.

Debbie Faber’s period costumes are special, from the bloomers, corsets, and dresses to George’s work clothes for digging the canal.  Director Seth Rossman had help from his two Assistant Directors, Colette Brown and Liz Nye.  Their combined efforts resulted in a seamless period piece showcasing Esther’s isolation and frustration.  Though no Dialect Coach is credited in the program, the several dialects (urban New Yorker, Russian Jew, and African American slang and cadence) used by the cast were impressive.  

Nottage’s script tell a captivating story, but not without some distractions.  While neither of the lead characters can read or write, that detail is lost after we learn of it.  Armstrong’s transformation from sincere romantic to ruthless scoundrel is abrupt and jarring.  But these are minor quibbles; Nottage’s story is, for me at least, unforgettable.

I saw Intimate Apparel on Friday, July 8, 2016.  That was four days after Alton Sterling was killed by police officers in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.  It was two days after Philando Castile was killed by police officers in suburban St. Paul Minnesota.  And it was also one day after five police officers were murdered in Dallas Texas by an African American man incensed by the deaths of Castile and Sterling.

The deaths of these seven people in three locations in the span of four days has made a lasting impact on those communities, and on the nation as a whole.  Those events were not lost on me as I watched Intimate Apparel on the Vintage Theatre stage.  

I can’t help but wonder how 110 years after Nottage’s New York City, and more than150 years after a bloody Civil War, we still haven’t figured out how to deal with our most important problems.  Racism may not be at the root of all, or even any, of these recent incidents.  It’s too soon to tell. 

That said, though, there is little doubt that racism is deeply ingrained in our society.  The segregation of the classes in Nottage’s Intimate Apparel is less formal now, but just as pervasive.  There is not much question that Esther, looking to break out of poverty by opening a beauty salon, would have a difficult time achieving her dream.

Nottage uses a metaphor in her script:  quilts.  Quilts are carefully created works of fabric art that take unrelated scraps of cloth and sews them into a beautiful patchwork of colors, textures, and functionality.  Try as we might, we have not yet figured out how to create such a quilt of the many colors, cultures, and people in the United States.  “United” should appear in quotation marks because we only have the illusion of unity.

Until we can create such a quilt, blending our many disparate parts into a functional whole, we cannot have peace, opportunity, and the promise of the American Dream.  Intimate Apparel is a reminder of how long that quilt has eluded us.


NOTES:

There is ample free street parking in the area.  This show is suitable for all ages.

This show closed on July 10, 2016.

There are two quilts used in Intimate Apparel.  Those quilts were loaned to the the theater for the run of the show.  Because there is a back story about one of the quilters, I have reproduced it below as information.  Traci Chocol got pregnant with twins at age 50.  The twins died in childbirth, as did Traci.  Her mother is Eileen Burnley, a mother, a quilter, and no doubt a woman in profound grief.

Taken from a Facebook post by actress Lisa Young on July 10, 2016:

Saying goodbye to Traci Chocol and her twins. 

Traci's mother Eileen Burnley spent hours helping me to learn how to knit, quilt and just create pretty things in preparation for my current role as Esther Mills-Armstrong in Intimate Apparel at Vintage. 

I can't imagine the pain this mother had to endure nor that of her husband Todd. But I sit here celebrating LIFE! 

In these times of such fear and hatred I stand in awe of Eileen and her strength and guidance for her family and her continued love and support for me. With all she is going through she still has lifted me! 

Thank you to the real Esther... Eileen Burnley 


Photo Credit:  Vintage Theatre Company

TICKETS HERE:  This show has closed.


CREATIVE TEAM:

Artistic Director:  Craig A. Bond

Director:  Seth Rossman

Assistant Directors:  Colette Brown & Liz Nye

Music Director:  Trent Hines

Scenic Design:  Alex Polzin

Sound Design:  Rick Reid

Lighting Design:  Sean Mallary

Properties Design:  Stephanie Hancock

Costume Designer:  Debbie Faber

Stage Manager:  Kortney Hanson

Assistant Stage Manager:  Marleigh Sizemore


CAST:

Esther:  Lisa Young

George:  Cris Davenport

Mrs. Van Buren:  Allison Learned

Mr. Marks.:  Seth Maisel

Mrs. Dickson:  Colette Brown

Mayme:  Simone St. John

Mayme (understudy):  Tashara May