At the end of last month, Brian Freeland, whose LIDA Project has been a vital presence on the Denver theater scene for the past ten years, sent out a press release announcing that the group is leaving town. They had intended, he said, "to reinvent theatre as a vehicle for social change...to start a Revolution." Now they're moving on.
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There are many kinds of experimental theater. The Buntport members, for instance, create their own plays, come up with ingeniously designed sets and make intensely creative use of objects. Their primary intention, as far as I can tell, is to show us a good time. Perhaps they'd also like to heighten our sense of irony, but their goals are no loftier than that. Theaters like LIDA, on the other hand, are created with some intention of changing the world by bringing theater back to its roots in myth, ritual and storytelling. They trace their own roots to the ferment of the '60s, when actors and directors pretty much expelled the playwright from the room and stretched, tested or tossed out such theatrical conventions as the well-made play, the fourth wall and the barrier between actor and audience. The work was primal, anarchic, often angry. You might see live rats scurrying about the stage or find an actor's fist inches from your face.
Serious stuff. Accordingly, you never found chocolate, wine or coffee available at LIDA during intermission, nor was there much attention paid to production values. Sometimes watching a play in the company's cavernous warehouse was physically uncomfortable. And at the end, no one ever came out to bow. These productions weren't intended to provide amusement and pleasure. They were intended to blow your mind.
At LIDA's best, they did. The company brought in Pulitzer winner Suzan-Lori Parks's Brechtian Fuckin' A and surprised rock devotees with the music of Hedwig and the Angry Inch. A dedicated group of actors went through months of exercises and experimentation to create Manson Family Values, a gruesome, blood-dripping acid trip that delivered a unique take on the '60s. Family Stories: Belgrade shone a clear, unhappy light on the political upheaval in Serbia. And I can still call up in my mind scenes from The Skriker -- a brilliant script by Caryl Churchill, a virtuosic and intelligent performance by Mare Trevathan Philpott in the title role.
Other LIDA productions were less successful, but Denver needs this kind of dedication and insight, theater made out of chewing gum and paper clips and sheer determination, theater that wants to blow our collective mind. It's become a cliche to say that Denver theater is in flux, but these days we do seem to be battling for the city's aesthetic soul. Industrial Arts has just closed. Boulder's venerable Nomad has announced that it will be shuttered through 2005. Kent Thompson of the Alabama Shakespeare Festival will be taking over as artistic director of the Denver Center Theatre Company this year. The ASF doesn't have a particularly high profile, and a glance at its last season raises misgivings. Still, we can hope that Thompson will mount challenging and stimulating work here. "The facts are there," as Lucky said in Waiting for Godot, "but time will tell I resume alas alas on on..."