The dream of sustaining a repertory company dedicated to producing the classics has intrigued a host of theatrical luminaries -- and drained the resources of many more. In 1960, for instance, respected actor and director Ellis Rabb's company first took up residence at various universities, later merged with New York's Phoenix Theatre and, despite much acclaim, succumbed to financial pressures and folded. Closer to home and more recently, several small theater groups in Denver have produced season after season of classic works, only to wind up floundering in a sea of red ink.
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Still, local jack-of-all-theatrical-trades Len Kiziuk thinks he can attract a loyal audience base by taking an innovative approach to plays that he describes as "watershed events in their own time." A former theater historian who taught at Colorado College and in the pre-professional drama program at Loretto Heights College (before it closed in 1988), Kiziuk believes that many area theatergoers are looking for something more adventuresome than a steady diet of Broadway blockbusters. "There's a tendency here to repeat reliable works and a reluctance for risk-taking," he says, adding that the dearth of "good stories with solid characters" has created a vacuum that he's only too happy to fill.
With a ticking trio of millennial, biological and vocational clocks compelling him to "get the company going while I still want to do this," Kiziuk formed Way of the World Productions. Last spring, the plucky troupe kicked off its all-classics program with a well-received version of Arthur Schnitzler's La Ronde, a sexually charged drama that had captivated New York audiences when Nicole Kidman starred in David Hare's Broadway adaptation, The Blue Room. More important to Kiziuk, Schnitzler's 1900 play was the first dramatic piece to implement circular structure, "which is now so typical and predictable," says Kiziuk.
The Importance of Being Earnest, through November 20 at The Phoenix Theatre, 1124 Santa Fe Drive; $10-15, discounts for seniors, students and groups. Curtain at 8 p.m.; call 303-394-4295
On the heels of that success, the company began this season with David Mamet's A Life in the Theatre, a two-character play (which, coincidentally, was made into a TV version starring the late Rabb) that taught Kiziuk some hard lessons about finances, as well as the pitfalls of reinterpreting a classic. "We lived up to almost no one's individual expectations of Mamet," he says. The group hopes to remedy that situation with its current production of Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, a witty comedy whose creator is enjoying renewed popularity. "With the success of Gross Indecency and An Ideal Husband [the movie], Wilde is very hot right now," Kiziuk says. And the company's final effort, Sidney Howard's The Silver Cord, was, in 1926, one of the first attempts at social melodrama (the story deals with a diabolical mother-son relationship), which is now the stock-in-trade of most prime-time television series.
Above all, though, Kiziuk wants to foster a sense of camaraderie and extol the virtues of working for a true repertory company. "Many of the people involved in our previous productions will continue on in the next couple of shows, including former students who have now arrived at their own aesthetic and world view," he says. And with any luck, the former professor will tap into that collegial enthusiasm and put into practice the essence of a Wildean epigram: "In matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity is the vital thing."