Denver's nomadic CityStageEnsemble could almost be counted among the city's disenfranchised: After losing its permanent home a few years ago, the company founded by Dan Hiester and David Earl Jones went into hibernation. But now CityStage is back to pick up the pieces, with or without a venue. And if the disenfranchised are also the misunderstood, it's not a stretch for CityStage to align itself with such groups: The troupe's new Civil Liberties Theater Project: The Price of Belief, opening November 16 at the LIDA Project Theater, takes the politicized flotsam and jetsam of past, present and future CityStage work and uses it as a starting point toward exploring civil liberties infringements typical of the current world climate.
To that end, CityStage will offer several performances. These include excerpts from Jones's work-in-progress, With God on Our Side!, which was inspired by the seditious legacy of Civil War activist John Brown; and two works by Laura Cuetara -- Bitten by a Snake, based on the Civil War stories of Ambrose Bierce, and multimedia readings from Becoming Non Grata: Amache, the first in a projected trilogy of plays about Japanese internment camps. To tie it all together, City-Stage will invite panelists and hold public discussions to accompany the performances.
At the heart of the project is Jones's developing play; it's centered on a letter home written by a young follower of John Brown, in the aftermath of Brown's execution. The character relates disturbing plans to carry on Brown's legacy with an assassination attempt on Abraham Lincoln's life. "Initially, I was attempting to put in truly American terms a way to draw parallels between my character and John Brown and Osama bin Laden and the men who flew the planes on September 11," Jones explains. Adds Hiester, "A lot of us have a good handle on Osama bin Laden, but most people don't have a handle on the guys who flew the planes. We need to understand what brings someone to that point before we can have a human understanding of what went on."
Part of CityStage's rejuvenation also involves the exploratory evolution of theatrical presentation. The actors are looking for new ways to involve the audience, and they're using that active participation in two ways: "The whole piece is designed to look at civil liberties, the pluses and minuses, in a compelling way," Hiester says. "But it's also a format for development of new work." He expects With God on Our Side! to change throughout the project's run, and plans are in store for a fully realized staging next spring.
Cuetara's work adds other dimensions, on several fronts. "We're looking at the American character in wartime, times of high pressure, and understanding notions of heroism, duty, loyalty, liberty, significant political actions and so on," Hiester says. Cuetara, who works in image-based theater, will also present Amache in what she calls a chamber-theater version, featuring staged readings backed by projections. In addition, she'll take on the directorial duties for Jones's work, of which she says, "It's more like I'm developing the production, not directing. It's up to me to make sure it asks questions rather than positing answers."
That job -- coming up with answers -- will belong to the audience. Hiester says he's invited panelists from diverse sectors to help out, including representatives of the ACLU, the Diplomatic Corps of Colorado, Amnesty International and various other institutions. So come prepared to think rather than absorb. "We all have such a feeling like this is a real time and place and opportunity," Cuetara says. "And we'd better not blow it."
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