Midway through Act One of Kingdom, it becomes clear that Richard Hellensen's play about a corrupt theme-park company is as much an indictment of popular taste as it is a rebuke of the soulless purveyors of mass-merchandised shlock. Bringing to mind the retrofitted, ultra-functional environment of the movie Brazil, the three-in-jokes-per-storyboard style of The Simpsons and the no-stone-unturned commentary of Robert Altman's cinematic classic M*A*S*H, the quirky dramatist often appears to be holding several tigers by the tail. But by the time the Denver Center Theatre Company's world premiere lumbers to its foreseeable finish, Hellensen hasn't quite been able to figure out whether he wants to tame, beat or tickle into submission his metaphorical saber-toothed pride.
Maybe that's because Hellensen tries to do all three at once, traveling several paths that all lead to the same foregone conclusion: Corporate entertainment entities are run by greedy, suspender-snapping idiots who don't give a damn about impressionable young children. As evidence, Ron Smaiks (Robert Westenberg), the beady-eyed, bean-counting slickster who heads a mythical West Coast dream factory, is willing to evict an impoverished, overworked single mother and her child from their pay-by-the-week hotel room--just so he can make way for a theme-park expansion. But given that the play's central conflict is so clearly and quickly defined, it seems unnecessary to sit through a two-and-a-half-hour drama in order to be enlightened about a largely unarguable subject.
Still, understanding moral bankruptcy and doing something to bail ourselves out of it are often two vastly different things. And Hellensen's play, though often as predictable as the art forms it skewers, proves a mildly provocative and funny look at the forms of pop culture that we routinely decry even as we permit them to encroach upon our sense of self. Presented in the arena-style confines of the Space Theatre, the play begins by introducing us to the Castle Kids (Ashton Byrum, Michael McGurk and Jacqueline Maloney), a vapid song-and-dance trio who sing the praises of the amusement park run by Cubby Van Sant (William Denis), a silver-haired, soft-spoken codger who's just a few days shy of retirement. In fact, the company throws him a party at a castle-themed restaurant (replete with serving wenches clad in medieval costumes and patrons wearing gold paper crowns), where a misty-eyed Cubby passes the torch to Smaiks as the local mayor, Bob McTaggart (Randy Moore), looks on approvingly.
Other smiling guests at the cheesy sendoff include Rick Blair (Brian Keeler), Smaiks's warm and fuzzy architect friend who's been engaged to design the park's mammoth Millennium Square exhibit ("We're going beyond mere design; I think we're approaching art," Smaiks says encouragingly). There's also Bonnie (Susan Spencer), a slinky, sexy office assistant who always seems ready to obey the nearest man's slightest command, and Teri Montoya (Vanessa Quijas), the aforementioned single mother who's a hardworking waitress at the medieval-style hashery. Later in the play, Teri attempts to secure a future for herself and her young daughter, Marisa (Rocio Valenzuela), by posing nude for a pornographic magazine. Rick is moved by what he perceives to be her noble sacrifice, as well as the fact that the theme park is going to destroy Teri and Marisa's home (the very same hotel where Rick and his family stayed years earlier when they visited the fun farm across the street), so he decides to spare the now-seedy flophouse by forcing Smaiks to accept an altered design. Unfortunately for our earnest hero, Smaiks hires a new architect, Don Covell (Erik Tieze), and promptly dismisses his old buddy Rick.
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In addition to giving the play a deft staging--and wisely making optimal use of the DCTC's considerable technical resources to embellish Hellensen's thin script--director Israel Hicks elicits several strong performances from his accomplished cast. By turns charming and ruthless, Westenberg leads the company with a first-rate portrayal of the oily Smaiks. The versatile performer expertly straddles his character's lust for power and yearning for respect, especially when he derides the quaint, it's-a-small-world approach taken by Cubby and his predecessors, saying "You have infinity to play with, and you're messing around with 150-acre dreams." Although Keeler's portrait of the well-meaning Rick comes off as more lightweight and wishy-washy than crusading and conflicted, the affable actor nicely conveys his character's easy salesmanship. As he gestures toward the miniature gold geodesic dome and red ferris wheel that dot his lovely scale model of the park, you get the feeling that Keeler could make a compelling case for undertaking many a civic boondoggle--unless his grand plans were to adversely affect the lives of disadvantaged folk living in a marginal neighborhood. Adroitly avoiding stereotype, Spencer exudes Bonnie's wish to tiptoe through the complexities of her loathsome work situation, while remaining loyal to her role as chief underling and trusted minion. Moore and Denis both manage to invest their well-crafted portrayals with more admirable and discordant qualities than are perhaps scripted. And though Quijas's Teri is a tad labored here and there, the talented newcomer lends a down-to-earth goodness to her portrayal that is intriguing when combined with Valenzuela's precocious Marisa.
Hicks's production is permeated with pageantry and tried-and-true theatricality: A recurring bit illustrating the theme park's adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen's "The Little Match Girl" is particularly effective, as is an episode trumpeting the corporation's purchase of a hockey team named the Wild Geese ("If you take my wing/We can do anything" the insipid singers croon when the team's gap-toothed star player is introduced). Still, there's not much genuine feeling to latch on to. Though the actors artfully embody their characters' individual conflicts, you get the feeling that apart from the obvious, the issues that divide them haven't been adequately explored. And while Rick's assertion that eliminating contradictions is the key to producing successful fantasy, Hellensen needs to add some menace and mystery to his morality play. Otherwise, his journey devolves into a been-there-seen-that trip to Wally World instead of becoming a clarion call that, however comic, threatens to rock the foundations of a few so-called magic kingdoms.
Kingdom, through June 5 at the Space Theatre, in the Helen Bonfils Theatre Complex at 14th and Curtis, 303-893-4100.