Michael Mitnick's Ed, Downloaded, which was commissioned by the Denver Center Theatre Company, had a reading at last year's New Play Summit and is currently receiving its world premiere. It tells the story of a young man with a terminal illness who is engaged to an intellectual Englishwoman, Selene, but falls in love with perky, iconoclastic Ruby, who works street corners as a marionette. Selene is the administrator of the world's only Forevertery, a place where the dying can download and store their happiest memories and thus continue living them after death.
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The first act is winsome — there's no other word for it. Selene and Edward encounter Ruby; later, Ruby shows up at the museum where Edward works. There are a lot of mentions in the script of time, antiquity and ancient rocks — fitting in a play that aims to be in part a meditation on mortality. Ed and Ruby fall in love, eat pistachio ice cream and wander through the woods. Their dialogue is funny and sweet, so it doesn't occur to you that a lot of essential questions are going unanswered. What is Ed's sickness? Why does a girl who has all the money she can possibly use stand around on street corners dressed as a marionette — unless it's that marionettes are sort of French and romantic and the image goes so perfectly with Jacques Brel's "Carousel," which is playing in the background? Surely a museum would keep a fossilized dinosaur feather safely under lock and key? And although there's a tender scene between Edward and Selene (one that also reveals that she hates dirt while earth-child Ruby embraces it, and that she's far too brainy and conventional), why is he so passively agreeable when she proposes marriage? Particularly when grabby little Ruby insists he's hers and hers only? Does he have no thoughts of his own on the matter? By intermission you're still happy and dazzled, and that's because of the brilliant tech, every aspect of it, from James Kronzer's scenery to Brian Tovar's lighting to Tyler Nelson's evocative sound to Charles I. Miller's video design. And, of course, the director is Sam Buntrock, who won critical acclaim in both London and New York for his stunning revival of Sondheim's Sunday in the Park with George. The tech keeps your brain alert — contrasting, inferring, making connections — and it provides all the poetic depth that the script aspires to and doesn't quite achieve. Visually, the show is pure delight: the lovers in a snowy, silver-blue woodland, the spare elegant lines of Selene's kitchen. When Ed remembers his mother making marmalade, we see her on video, the warm color of the oranges accentuating the warm tones of actress Mare Trevathan's skin and hair as she holds out a section of fruit to an entranced little boy.
Mitnick's Forevertery is the play's most daring and original device, and it works well. We finally see the place in act two: rows of bubbling stands topped by glowing boxes until, as memories begin to unravel, innards and wires start spilling out all over the floor.
Presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company through February 17, Ricketson Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org.
But it's during this second act that you realize how thin the characterizations are, despite the excellent work of JD Taylor as Edward, Annie Purcell as Selene and Grace Rex as Ruby. Having found out after his death that Ed's stored memories are not of her, an unhinged Selene begins uttering the kinds of insults you'd expect from a pissed-off ten-year-old. And when Ruby pulls out a shotgun, all chance of suspending disbelief is gone. Yet the tech remains as arresting as before: You really can't get bored watching Selene struggle to manipulate data while big screens show you everything she's doing, from error messages to time estimates, while a plethora of crazy images — touching, funny, enigmatic — pass in front of your eyes, coalescing, separating, taking or losing focus.
At the last New Play Summit, a panel discussed the use of digital media in theater, the way it can enrich the action, provide depth, contradict or emphasize words, seduce the mind and eye. But in the end, the panelists all agreed that story is and will always remain at the center of the theatrical experience — and the vapid story at the center of Ed, Downloaded just doesn't do the job.