Paris on the Platte is a comic romp through early-nineteenth-century Denver history, focusing on Mayor Robert Speer and his dreams of "The City Beautiful." The opening -- a spoof on old-time melodrama -- doesn't quite work: It's hard to tell exactly what's being said by the yelling, gesticulating actors. But from then on, things settle down, and the Curious Theatre Company production provides as entertaining a history lesson as I can imagine.
Mayor Robert Speer accomplished great things for the Queen City of the Plains, which had been described by a British visitor in 1897 as "more plain than queenly," according to historians Stephen J. Leonard and Thomas J. Noel. As a topic, civic improvement has a pallid classroom sound, but the shape and design of a city has everything to do with the well-being of those who live there.
Speer was a genuine visionary. Inspired by two trips to Paris, he cleaned up Denver's streets, unclogged garbage-laden Cherry Creek, built an auditorium, created parks and laid plans for a civic center. But there was another side to these activities. Has anyone ever managed to erect monumental buildings or to gentrify a blighted area without causing hardship and displacing thousands of poor people? Furthermore, can a politician possess and wield the kind of power Speer had without making ugly choices and unholy alliances? Bill Clinton flew back to Arkansas in 1992, mid-campaign, to ensure the execution of a brain-damaged black prisoner, Ricky Lee Rector. Mayor Speer ignored prostitution, pandered to business and shamelessly rigged elections. As depicted in Joan Holden's play, however, he was also motivated by genuine passion.
Paris on the Platte
1080 Acoma Street
Presented by Curious Theatre Company through April 23, 303-623-0524, www.curioustheatre.org
Paris on the Platte is episodic, with time and place announced on white placards to the side of the stage. There's no clear story arc. The acting is presentational, though not always without feeling. Set designer Michael Duran has created a backdrop painted to resemble an old-fashioned theater curtain with heavy gold tassels. It shows nineteenth-century Denver, a surprisingly motley collection of shabby buildings. Inset in an oval is a photograph of the gold-domed State Capitol building. The production is accompanied throughout by the clean, swift playing of pianist David Dunbar, working in styles ranging from ragtime to Chopin.
Tupper Cullum does full justice to all aspects of Speer's complex character. His Speer is at ease with his power -- vigorous, humorous, even elegant. Cullum is the only actor in the cast who breaches the fourth wall, occasionally addressing a comment or an admonition to an audience member. Around his pencil-thin shape, the other characters swirl and all of the action takes focus.
The reform movement that opposed Mayor Speer is represented by two women: Virginia, played as a caricature by Kendra Crain McGovern, and Virginia's Aunt Winifred -- Dee Covington, in an equally broad portrayal. Delores, a young black woman who has recently arrived in Denver and is trying to make her way in the city, embodies at least one segment of the working class.
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The story deals with several levels of injustice, greater and lesser. Delores's husband is killed in an accident at the slaughterhouse where they both work. When she goes to a corrupt judge to complain, she is imprisoned for a month. (I wonder if Holden had in mind the recent Human Rights Watch report outlining the horrors of work in today's slaughterhouses.) Earlier, Delores had worked as a maid for Virginia, who, despite her conspicuous virtue, was blind to her servant's desperate attempts to raise herself from poverty. Virginia herself is betrayed by reforming judge Ben Lindsey, who ignores her devoted love and ultimately marries a far younger woman.
Under Chip Walton's direction, Paris is cartoonish, brightly colored and pleasing -- the declamatory acting, the plinking piano music, the sense that the events depicted are all safely in the past. But the more I thought about it later, the more complex it appeared, and the more it had to say about how we perceive history and the role of the city. My only criticism is that in all the speed and bustle, I lost some key elements of the plot.
In addition to Cullum's, there are other strong performances. Christopher Leo plays several characters with integrity and aplomb, including an upright judge and a Jewish immigrant from Russia. Erik Sandvold is convincing as power broker William Evans and gambling kingpin Vaso Chucovich. Jada Roberts is a very appealing Dolores, and a sleekly elegant Mrs. L.K. Daniels. Megan Meek charms as Kate Speer. Even though the characters are broadly written, the evening's best performances aren't remotely two-dimensional.
Which all goes to show that when someone with a keen political and satirical eye takes on civic issues, the results can be delightful.