The Communicator

Kent Thompson draws on his past to chart the Denver Center Theatre Company's future.

Women playwrights have come more and more into their own in the past ten years, Thompson feels. Under his leadership, the DCTC has set up the Women's Voices Fund to support the work of women writers. Administrators will seek out a hundred people willing to pledge $5,000 apiece over a five-year period; the intention is to raise $500,000 and establish a secure annual income.

There is also a two-day New Play Summit scheduled for February, and Thompson hopes to expand the project. One of his proudest achievements in Alabama, he says, was establishing the Southern Writers' Project, which created sixteen or seventeen world premieres and constituted "a remarkable theatrical expression of what it means to be a Southerner."

His religious background made Measure for Measure, which he has never directed before, a natural for Thompson. The production is slated for January. It deals with the misery caused by the hyper-religious, coldly moralistic Angelo, who's been deputized by the Duke to rule Vienna. Angelo immediately begins enforcing a law against fornication, and a young man, Claudio, is sentenced to death for sleeping with his beloved. Claudio's sister, Isabella, a novitiate at a nunnery, pleads with Angelo for her brother's life and, overcome with lust, Angelo makes a bargain with her: If she'll sleep with him, he'll pardon Claudio.

This is a difficult play, classified as a comedy, but with dark overtones. Thompson says he chose it because it is "obsessed with some of the issues we're obsessed with as a country right now: religion and politics and sex -- and politics and sex and religion." During the twentieth century, he points out, many directors viewed the play in Freudian terms, and audiences tended to wonder why any woman would let her brother die rather than submit to unwanted sex. But now, Thompson notes, "we live in an era where people have very strong religious convictions, and there's the rise of the religious right as a political force. The play deals with these really thorny issues that we seem to be struggling with again as a culture. What do you do with people of faith in power? What do you do about sexuality and morality, about decadence in your society?"

Isabella herself is "in her own way, a religious fundamentalist, or perhaps I should say an evangelical," he says, but she is also "a very bright, smart woman who can argue theology with Angelo. And she is perhaps the only person in the play who shows mercy."

As for A Flea in Her Ear, "I think if you're a minister's son, you see a lot of the struggles that people have with moral issues, and you see them in a way that probably would be shocking to an outsider. That's why I love comedies of manners, because they're about the way we that we hold ourselves versus the way that we really are. And the thing about farce is, it's very funny, but it's very funny when it's rooted in a certain amount of pain." The protagonist of A Flea in Her Earis having problems maintaining his erection. "The reason the play is so compelling to me, and kind of giddy, is because all of us desire to feel young again, to feel wanted and attractive and attracted, and that's what the play really deals in," Thompson says. "The characters make fools of themselves repeatedly, and show how crazy we all act when we try to pursue eternal youth."

Flea also showcases the strengths of the acting company built up by Donovan Marley. It stars, among others, such longtime Denver favorites as Jamie Horton, Kathleen M. Brady, John Hutton, Bill Christ, Randy Moore and Mark Rubald. Many observers predicted that Thompson would clear the decks and bring his own actors with him when he came to Denver, as Marley did before him in 1984 (Jamie Horton, whom Marley kept on, was the sole survivor of the original company). But Thompson intends a more organic process. He feels there's a lot of talent in the company and says, "We're trying to figure out how we'll work together. My job is to get the best work out of the people that are here and bring in new people who can make everyone's work better, too."

The Denver Center has long had a wealth of excellent middle-aged actors, but there's been a dearth of equally talented younger performers on the center's stages. It's difficult to keep young actors in Denver, says Thompson, because most of them are eager to try their luck in New York or Los Angeles. But he hopes to figure out a way to attract and retain emerging talents.

All of this, he says, is "the difficult part of the job. I've always got to decide who stays, who goes. I think there's an ebb and flow to a company anyway. Some people who are not with the company right now, we may see back. There will be people who are with us most of the time, people who come back regularly, people who come back every few years -- a group of people who see the company as a place where they want to work on a regular basis."

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