The Avenue Theater, long known for comedy, has been undergoing a prolonged transition since the departure of artistic director Bob Wells. The Avenue is a shabby, comfortable and unpretentious theater that you could always visit in your grubbies for a drink or two and a relaxing evening, though every now and then something wonderful and unexpected might jolt you to attention: Laura Norman’s searing performance as a drone operator in Grounded — not an Avenue production, but sponsored by the Boulder Ensemble Theatre collective in the venue — or Nick Sugar bringing down the house with his raucous, heartbreaking performance in Hedwig and the Angry Inch. This past spring, Gavin Mayer took over as artistic director, and his goals are less improvisational and more ambitious: He intends to ensure the organization’s financial stability. And where once a show at the Avenue might run as long as people still came to see it — sometimes for months — Mayer has set up a full, formal season that includes serious drama. “We are creating programming that serves the core of who we think the Avenue audience is and always has been,” he told arts reporter John Moore, “but this is also about building a new audience from the ground up.”
Still, the first production of the 27th season goes for the funny bone in a big way. Eric Coble’s Bright Ideas is about a couple aspiring to transcend their own impoverished backgrounds by getting their almost-four-year-old son into the best kindergarten, which happens to be Bright Ideas, which believes that who you are at four, you will remain for the rest of your life. Beginning as a timely, satirical sendup of neurotically hovering parents, the play spirals further and further into uncontained — though not uncontrolled — farce. Gentle, loving wife and mother Genevra transforms over the course of the evening into a monster of ego and destruction, a mix of Lady Macbeth and Macbeth himself: She’s as ruthless as Lady Macbeth in Shakespeare’s early scenes, as committed to her evil path as Macbeth eventually becomes. It’s husband Josh who, like the later, guilt-maddened Lady M, walks in his sleep and mutters about the impossibility of getting the smell of pesto off his hands. Yes, pesto — the couple’s murder weapon. As in Macbeth, there’s a shining golden crown to be won.
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Director Pat Payne’s cast possesses varying levels of talent, but every member attacks the project with humor and energy. Two first-rate performances carry the evening. Erica Fox is completely convincing as Genevra, veering between meekness and murderously out-of-control rage. Haley Johnson plays Denise, whose money got her child into Bright Ideas before Genevra’s son. She’s so convincingly smug, manipulative and hypocritical that it’s no wonder Genevra feels the need to destroy her. Johnson also takes on various other roles; the second funniest is as the principal of Bright Ideas, who’s on to Genevra’s machinations and terrified of her. Their encounter is played out with puppets in a wonderful scene that both women work to the max.
There are some problems with this production, though. The acoustics at the Avenue are poor, and much of the action takes place upstage center; it was hard hearing what was said from there. The production uses minimal props and furnishings, and much of the action is mimed — sometimes sloppily. It also appeared that the actors occasionally felt uncomfortably exposed on the almost-bare stage. Still, it’s a promising start to the season.
The next production is Equus, a complex and portentous play with strong performance and technical requirements, and I have to wonder how feasible a choice that is. After that comes Santa’s Big Red Sack, an Avenue holiday-season regular, and then in spring, Cups — the story of a woman’s life told through her bras. Christy Montour Larson, one of the best directors around, follows with Legacy of Light, a comedy about two women scientists who live centuries apart, by Karen Zacarias, whose Just Like Us showed at the Denver Center Theatre Company recently. Finally, there’s Beautiful Thing, a play about first love between two working-class British schoolboys. It’s impossible to tell from the list of titles whether we’re in for a vibrant, integrated season or a mix in which quality varies director by director and play by play — but it can’t be anything but good to have fresh energy and new vision at this long-established and well-loved place.
Bright Ideas. Presented by the Avenue Theater through October 3, 417 East 17th Avenue, 303-321-5925, avenuetheater.com.