Much of the public discussion concerning the Columbine High School massacre has swirled about in a cauldron of controversy. The memorial service was too secular, too religious or too political. Howard Stern's incendiary (and stupid) remarks were seen as emblematic of the media's willingness to champion the right of free speech over the need for responsible expression. Even the Denver Center Theatre Company has had to deal with complaints about the violent ending of its current production, The Elevation of Thieves.
Like most of the controversies, public opinion about Nagle Jackson's play, which was written three years ago in response to the murders of sixteen schoolchildren and a teacher in Dunblane, Scotland, continues to be both grounded in reason and knee-jerked out of proportion (the play takes place in a mythical Western European town and makes no reference to the Dunblane incident). More important, apart from a few striking--yet coincidental--similarities between episodes in the play and the Columbine shootings, there's nothing in Jackson's drama that seems intended to exploit anyone's loss, defame anyone's memory or diminish anyone's dignity. Comparisons to Columbine could just as easily be made if the DCTC were presenting a modern-dress version of Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus, a graphic revenge drama in which teenage characters are maimed and killed.
That said, the only offenses Jackson appears to have committed are a few dramaturgical ones that occasionally dilute the cathartic power of his compelling play. In fact, the playwright seems more interested in provoking discussion by dissecting long-standing issues such as the corrosive effect of violent entertainment, the recurring specter of racism, the deification of professional athletes, the worship of greed and expediency, the rise of secularism, the simultaneous decline of traditional spiritual values, and the pervasive influence of dehumanizing technology--instead of merely adding rhetoric to the punditry trash heap. All of which, combined with a surprising abundance of humor, means that the play is bound to engender both spirited debate and irrational argument.
Things hit especially close to home when a few cultural symbols associated with the high school slayings surface throughout the drama. Johnny (Douglas Harmsen), a 31-year-old former soccer player, helps to erect three wooden crosses on top of a grassy hill in preparation for a small European town's annual Passion play. A few minutes later, Stage Theatre reverberates with deafening rock music that's been added to the "updated" version of the ancient festival. When the prim mayor's secretary, Miss Ketzel (Kathleen M. Brady), asks a teenager in black-rimmed glasses why she wants to listen to music that's "so loud that it hurts," Tulip (Sarah Flanagan) gleefully replies, "So it will." Naturally, that's not what the waffling mayor, Albert Farr (played by Anthony De Fonte), has in mind when he hires an up-and-coming theatrical director, Niki Dunn (Patricia Dalen), to jazz up the ceremony so that it can be televised--and thereby make money to pay for increased city services in the New Town neighborhood that's teeming with hordes of unwelcome Muslims. In turn, Niki decides to go high-tech and enlists the aid of Johnny's boss, Mr. Farleigh (John Hutton), an American security company executive who agrees to supply explosive material for the special effects meant to simulate the earthquake that supposedly occurred when Christ gave up the ghost.
After consulting with the local bishop (Tony Church) and with Arthur St. George (Jamie Horton), a blue-blood whose family has sponsored the pageant for over three centuries, Albert dismisses a request made by Youssef Omir (Steve Memran), a Muslim who wants to be "elevated" to the honor of portraying one of the two thieves. Meanwhile, the mayor's daughter, Meg (Corliss Preston), refuses to leave her room as a result of an acute onset of agoraphobia but still manages to fan her father's smoldering anger by sleeping with his arch enemy. As if that weren't enough to stoke the bonfires of contention, Niki tells Emory (Anthony Powell), a sensitive loner whose head spontaneously jerks to one side from time to time, that he won't be permitted to perform his normal task of telling jokes to the Passion play crowd. Emory promptly calls her a bitch and stalks away.
The two-and-a-half-hour play moves along at a comfortable pace, building to a riveting climax that's foreshadowed by some of the dialogue, also eerily reminiscent of Columbine. Brady's xenophobe, for instance, elicits gasps from the audience when she scorns the town's brash newcomers: "They are the children of Allah--and if you don't agree with that, they'll blow you up." Preston similarly touches raw nerves when she voices Meg's observation that "without football and without a wife in this town, you're a nonperson." When Emory explains that his tic came about because, as a lad, he was continually attacked from behind by bullying schoolmates, and when Youssef (who wears a knife on his belt) menacingly declares that his people "must be taken into the community," the threat of impending disaster looms even larger.
But rather than depict the killings or their horrifying aftermath, Jackson--who also directs the production--wisely uses a Greek tragedy-style messenger to describe events that occur offstage. He also provides us with an artful postscript that, as performed by his splendid ensemble, ennobles his examination of complex issues and, for a brief moment, at least, transcends them. As the performers quietly articulate the final scene's sublime poeticism, Jackson's expert staging evokes a community's struggle to come to grips with divisive but ultimately galvanizing issues.
Still, Jackson might want to consider making a few adjustments. As it stands, the weaknesses of the town leaders are emphasized almost to the exclusion of their stronger qualities: They come off as spineless, hand-washing Pontius Pilates when they would probably resonate better if they were rendered as once-proud and crusading souls whose pledge to fight the good fight has, to tragic consequence, been compromised by a desire to please the masses--or get face-time on TV. The play could also use fewer elements of suspenseful melodrama and more of Greek tragedy. A couple of emotion-charged debates (two meaty speeches followed by a lengthy, rapid-fire exchange of one-liners is the standard) between members of the old and new guard would probably deepen and shade the play's conflicts.
Like any good playwright, though, Jackson has chosen to explore complex issues in a public, civic forum that has always been an arena for the clash of human passions. Far from being an arrogant artistic statement or manipulative exercise, his achingly timely play is a testament to the power of art to illuminate, inform, instruct and heal--a public service that nowadays seems more indispensable than ever.
The Elevation of Thieves, through June 5 at the Stage Theatre, in the Helen Bonfils Theatre Complex at 14th and Curtis, 303-893-4100.
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