Denver Lore Meets Indie Beats in Premiere of Whiskey from Strangers | Westword
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This New Experience Unearths Denver Lore Set to Indie Beats

Grapefruit Lab and Teacup Gorilla blend live music, theater and friendship in "impressionist nonfiction."
"It’s a love letter to Denver," says Julie Rada of Grapefruit Lab.
"It’s a love letter to Denver," says Julie Rada of Grapefruit Lab. Courtesy of Kenny Storms

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What lies beneath the bustling streets of Denver, and what secrets are hidden in its storied past? Whiskey From Strangers, a collaboration between local queer theater troupe Grapefruit Lab and indie band Teacup Gorilla, seeks to answer these questions through a musical storytelling experience about the city.

"We are mythologizing both the city of Denver and our band's friendship," says Miriam Suzanne, bass player for Teacup Gorilla, Grapefruit Lab member and author of the book that inspired the performance's music and story. "This is the most half-concert, half-theater event we've ever done. It’s more than a theater piece, underscored by a few songs popping out; Whiskey From Strangers is a full set that is interspersed with story, reminiscing, chatting and presentation."

Set to premiere at Buntport Theater on Friday, May 10, the production also serves as an album release for Teacup Gorilla's latest EP of the same name. Whiskey From Strangers will showcase all of the songs as well as original material written specifically for the live show, the genesis of which can be traced back to Suzanne's novel Riding SideSaddle*, an exploration of identity, friendship and loss through a series of shuffled notecards in a box.

"It's a very queer story, written as a series of memories to try to re-create that feeling of when you're sitting around talking with friends," Suzanne says. "Over the years, we've used a lot of those little vignettes I wrote in our music. We had a series of songs that we had been working on but never recorded that included bits from the novel, so we decided to record them. We also like doing hybrid stuff — merging music, story and theater — so here we are again."

Teacup Gorilla, which comprises Suzanne, Daniel Eisenstat on guitar and Sondra Eby on drums, forms the musical backbone of Whiskey From Strangers. The trio's moody sound complements Suzanne's evocative storytelling, and Eisenstat says they used the novel's aquatic themes and settings, "full of cattails and lily pads," to create an auditory landscape that reflected its reedy atmosphere and "impressionist nonfiction" tone.
click to enlarge three people talking with a black background
Whiskey From Strangers invites the audience to navigate the complex interplay between memories and myths.
Courtesy of Kenny Storms
"We are setting it up as if it were a concert, even though we are in a theater," says Julie Rada of Grapefruit Lab. "We have openers, but unlike a concert, we are being a little more deliberate about costuming and lighting. Along the way, the concert starts to unravel into this sort of extemporaneous conversation that relives old memories and explores identity. We have an old-school overhead projector that is used for telling stories, and there is a kiddie pool with water in the center of the stage — which is not a spoiler, because it is there from the moment people walk in, but it is something they must contend with."

Local artists who will open for Whiskey From Strangers include Declan Scully, Matinee, Sugar Howl, Unnamed Moons and Green Typewriters (the full list is available on Grapefruit Lab's website), and a different Denver luminary will provide a voice for the kiddie pool each night. The musical selections are rich and varied, weaving the atmospheric tones of Teacup Gorilla's music with the spoken word and dramatized elements of Grapefruit Lab's theatrical style.
click to enlarge view of people's feet in a kiddie pool
Local artists will open for Whiskey from Strangers.
Courtesy of Kenny Storms
Each song, while rooted in the themes of Suzanne's novel, takes on new life in the context of the live performance, echoing the watery motifs and lush, verdant imagery that characterize the book's setting. This melding of sound and narrative serves to deepen the emotional impact of the stories told.

"Sonically, it's incredibly diverse," Rada says. "Some of the songs are playful, some are dark, some are brooding, some get big, some begin soft and grow big, and one is lyrical. This has a memoir-like quality to it; it is more like creative nonfiction. It features characters based on real-life people who play themselves, but not everything they say is true. It's a palimpsest of truth, pieces from the novel, and then just fictitious playfulness."

As the boundaries between reality and fiction blur in this hybrid performance, Whiskey From Strangers invites the audience to navigate the complex interplay between memories and myths. This experience draws spectators not only into the heart of Denver's narrative, but into the nuanced stories of its people, crafting a shared space where every note and word resonates deeply with personal and collective histories.

"It’s a love letter to Denver," Rada concludes. "Regardless of where you entered the story of Denver in your life, I think any audience member will have an aha! moment when you realize you’ve had that experience in Denver. We are invoking specific places and experiences to provide people with a sense of home and place that is woven into the music and text."

Whiskey From Strangers, Friday, May 10, through Saturday, June 1, Buntport Theater, 717 Lipan Street. Get tickets at grapefruitlab.com.
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