Celluloid Heroes

The garish glow emanating from movies, television shows and interactive media has effectively dimmed the theater's jewel in America. But rather than abandoning all hope and selling out to Hollywood, some dramatists are choosing to preserve theatrical traditions by writing plays that manipulate the electronic media.

It's an idea that appeals to Boulder native Eric Overmyer, who exploits the hedonistic, money-grubbing world of Hollywood in his play Dark Rapture. Eliciting the uniquely American desire to live life as if it were a constantly evolving screenplay, Overmyer combines his talent for language with elements of film noir in this entertaining drama about "movie people" and their hangers-on. Now on stage at the Acoma Center in a production by Denver's HorseChart Theatre Company, Dark Rapture contains subject matter that's surprisingly ideal for theatrical examination: After all, how better to expose the nature of two-dimensional people than by placing them in a three-dimensional medium?

As the play begins, Ray (Brett Aune), a disenchanted screenwriter, helplessly watches as his house burns down, an unfortunate incident that Ray sees as his own chance to rise from the ashes. Somehow Ray arranges to have a burned body placed in the ruins of his house, convincing authorities that he has died in the blaze. His wife, Julia (Michelle Kaye), is therefore entitled to the hefty proceeds from Ray's life-insurance policy. But will she collect the millions and stash the cash or lose it in a classic swindle?

The scene quickly shifts to an L.A. used-car lot, where two small-time hoods, Danny (Matt Saunders) and Ron (J.K. Palmer), shake down a Turkish car dealer, Nizam (Nick Guida). A second-generation Armenian-American, Danny puts a gun to Nizam's head and demands that the proud Turk accept responsibility for the extermination of more than a million Armenians during World War I. But Nizam says that he's an American citizen and can't take the blame for Turkey's ancient history. Nizam begs Danny to spare his life in a poignant moment that echoes Rodney King's famous words, "Can't we all get along?" (Overmyer wrote the play at the time of the Los Angeles riots.)

The play continues apace as we're transported to Cabo San Lucas, Key West, New Orleans and a host of other exotic locations. In our travels, we meet Vegas (Scott Blackburn), a lisping Hollywood type, and his leisure-suited sidekick, Lexington (Philip A. Russell). Blackburn and Russell also portray two high-priced lawyers, Mathis and Scones, who try to sort out the complications of Julia's financial picture. Then, late in the sixteen-scene drama, we meet former stripper and drug dealer Max (Zoe Chance), who hooks up with Ray in the Caribbean despite her doubts about Ray's boast that he's a screenwriter (who isn't these days?). Max falls in love with Ray anyway, a plot development that emphasizes the many levels on which these characters are willing to live their lives ("I've got to glue my belief system back together," says one character later in the play).

Overmyer's plays require actors to break down his rich language in much the same way that Shakespearean actors analyze the intricacies of the Bard. And to their credit, several of the performers display an impressive command of the playwright's dialogue. Director Stephen Cosgrove capitalizes on his actors' verbal gymnastics by directing the play at a frenetic pace--a wise choice that evokes the play's haphazard, out-of-control feel. Cosgrove also uses two Plexiglas cubes to cleverly duplicate the cinematic illusion of props appearing out of nowhere. At key moments throughout the play, performers suddenly lift small rectangular pieces of scenery that serve as counterweights to the cubes, which are suspended high above the stage. As if by magic, the translucent boxes descend to the stage floor, delivering a much-needed champagne bottle or briefcase to an actor's waiting hands.

However, Cosgrove fails to take full advantage of the elements of cinematic style. One would think that Overmyer's episodic, freewheeling script would inspire a director to employ slide projections and video clips to embellish the play's Hollywood-based theme. But that never happens. Instead, Cosgrove stages the play as if it were a student project being performed in a university theater, complete with a few awkward scene changes and the use of modular, "suggestive" furniture. Though the director sometimes makes good use of the set's many levels and avenues of egress, his efforts would be significantly enhanced by a few dollars' worth of multimedia effects.

Of course, Dark Rapture is an ambitious undertaking that would be a daunting challenge to any theater group. That Cosgrove and his cast succeed in communicating the essence of Overmyer's message with their few-frills production is perhaps the best compliment a local company can give to this play.

Dark Rapture, through March 21 at the Acoma Center, 1080 Acoma Street, 458-0755.


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