Anthony Zerbe is one terrific character actor. He has appeared in dozens of movies and TV shows, as villains or good guys, disappearing into his roles and yet always remaining distinctly himself. I remember seeing his remarkable Richard III at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego, and it has remained for me over the past twenty-odd years the definitive Richard. He does accents exceptionally well, but his own voice is his best voice --sonorous, graceful, touched by a slight nasal twang, with a precision of enunciation that indicates a passion for words.
But that passion for words can be a liability--as it seems to be in his one-man show Prelude to Lime Creek, now at the Denver Center's Ricketson Theatre. Based on a novel-in-progress by Joe Henry, an Aspen songwriter and rancher, Prelude has moments of emotional power but doesn't make it as a theater piece.
Act One is a series of character studies--little stories that are taken out of context and given no particular connection to each other. These vignettes, performed by Zerbe, are strung together without reference to time by a series of Henry's songs--folksy pantheisms about nature, love, death and the cycles of life--sung artfully enough by Gary Burr. Act Two opens with Burr's reprise of the song that ended Act One, a number about accepting death. Then Zerbe launches into a long poem that takes as its main theme the horrors of war.
The problem is...words. When Zerbe tells (or rather, acts) a story, the stage comes alive with the character's presence, and the viewer is riveted to the events. Henry has a gift for dialogue, capturing with great wit and insight the way people really talk and act. And Zerbe is just the man to illuminate the various accents and emotional states of the characters.
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But when Zerbe leaves off storytelling and begins to quote from Henry's lyrical passages, things fall apart. Zerbe mouths the words with plenty of affection but without much distinction--it's all a lot like those coffeehouse poetry readings of the Sixties, when everyone wanted to sound like Dylan Thomas or Yeats or one of the Beats. Henry's words do have beauty and music, but they don't mean much unless they're telling a story or portraying characters. At first the waterfall of words is pleasant, but by and by, the events of one's own day may begin to intrude insistently, and the waterfall recedes into background noise. Only an effort of will draws one back to listen.
So the story about the man who climbs a mountain in a snowstorm and leaves his pack behind before he climbs up higher is only interesting until the man stops and has an epiphany about how life and death is all one and it doesn't matter if he goes on and dies or stays and lives. This kind of semi-philosophical silliness becomes tiresome very quickly. The climb is interesting; the reflection is trite.
The very best story of the evening--the one that brought tears to the eyes of many a viewer--concerns a rancher's love for his mare, an old animal in so much pain that he decides she must be put to sleep. The vet is called in, and the rancher and his brother comfort her in her passing, troubled and grieving for her as she slips away. It is real, it is universal, and it is meaningful. The rest is background music.--Mason
Prelude to Lime Creek, through June 8 at the Denver Center Theatre Company, in the Plex at 14th and Curtis, 893-4100.