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All first-rate actors are first-rate in completely different ways, and Brian Landis Folkins is no exception. He doesn't have a highly defined stylishness, doesn't raise the temperature every time he walks across a stage or reduce audiences to tears with the suppleness of his emotions. With him, you don't get juicy eccentric comedy or the sense of banked-down, white-hot passion that you see in such actors as Chris Reid. (And where the hell is Chris Reid these days, anyway?) Instead, Folkins is someone who'd easily vanish into the background at a party, nondescript-looking with pale hair and forgettable features — but with the ability to absolutely inhabit a role. And his performance in the world premiere of Astronomical Sunset is the linchpin that holds the not-yet-quite-sure-of-its-own-direction script together, keeping us involved all evening long.
Which is odd, because his character is the ultimate shlub, someone who — as written — ought to have a very hard time sustaining audience interest. Jim is a man destroyed by guilt because a social-networking site he created led to...actually, I'm not quite sure what, but it had to do with a teenage boy posting compromising photographs of his girlfriend. The boy is now in prison; it's unclear what happened to the girl. None of this makes a whole lot of sense. Would Mark Zuckerberg really face criminal charges for something a subscriber posted? And — privacy-invading jerk though he might be — why on earth would he feel guilty? The stretches of dialogue in which playwright Robert Lewis Vaughan attempts to be current and relevant — with comments about privacy and the atomized, inhuman nature of contemporary communication — are tedious; fortunately, there aren't too many of them.
Jim has moved with his wife, Liz, to a small town to escape gossip and death threats, and is steadily falling apart, cuddling a baseball bat for fear of intruders, wearing the same robe and pajama bottoms day after day, refusing to shower and — naturally — alienating the devoted Liz either by ignoring her or by begging her, for her own safety, to leave him. There's no variation at all to the character, just a continual steady falling, and he could easily become a self-pitying bore. But Folkins makes him real, periodically surprising and human enough to elicit sympathy.
Into Jim and Liz's miserably constrained life together erupt a pair of teenagers who claim to be their neighbors. Lily is pushy and perky; she's soon organizing Liz's days for her, bringing daily muffins and annoying the hell out of Jim. Jared, supposedly Lily's car-stealing brother, is something else entirely: gothy, sliding, haunting, ambiguous, even vampiric.
If Astronomical Sunset ultimately succeeds, it's more as a ghost story than an exploration of contemporary issues — though there are some problems with the supernatural aspects, too, and a couple of plot points that refuse to snap into place. The script is aided by a strong production, however, and Folkins's performance isn't the only thing that makes it so. Lynnsey Ooten is a sprightly little Lily and Allison Watrous a charming and sympathetic Liz, though she could find a bit more depth in the role. Ben Sloane's clingy, decadent, insinuating expressiveness as Jared is the scariest thing in the play.
Tech has to be impeccable if you're aiming for horror, and director Chip Walton has ensured that it is here. Greg Loftus's tri-level set presents a fluid, visually engaging base for the action, looking cozy when lighted and properly haunted in semi-darkness. Equally terrific is Shannon McKinney's lighting design — the beautiful, ever-changing skies beyond the window, the shifting shadows in the living room. It takes skill to make sure that the ticking of a clock, half-animal, half-human mewls, low instrumental growling, unexpected rhythms, whooshes and great bangs don't descend into kitsch and cliché, but sound designer Jason Ducat has skill to spare. I can only imagine the hours of rehearsal spent by the director and tech people perfecting the timing of the special effects.
In both its weaknesses and its strengths, Astronomical Sunset validates Curious Theatre Company's devotion to new work and brings a sense of possibility to the Denver scene.
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