Denver theater has been particularly vital and intriguing during the past year. It’s hard to define exactly why. Perhaps because there’s a new artistic director, Chris Coleman, bringing a different vision to the Denver Center for the Performing Arts Theatre Company; smaller companies are taking more risks — and there are more of them; we see a whole lot of political exploration coming from various viewpoints and directions; and local playwrights are bringing all kinds of new and exciting work to town and finding more and more places where they can show it off. And, as always, there’s a lot of wonderfully frivolous entertainment at venues like the Garner Galleria Theatre, the Arvada Center mainstage and BDT Stage to just sit back and enjoy.
Here are some of the best events, productions, performances and moments of 2019:
Best memorable tragic moment:
Finalists: Emma Messenger and Abner Genece, The Diary of Anne Frank, Arvada Center Black Box Theatre; Emily Paton Davies, The Quality of Life , Benchmark Theatre
Winner: Emily Paton Davies
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I’ve found that certain scenes, passages, even fleeting moments on stage have stayed and vibrated in my mind over many years of theater viewing. Perhaps because they’re particularly poignant or funny, completely surprising or crazy brave. This year there were several such moments, both tragic and comic. One deeply touching moment occurred between Emma Messenger and Abner Genece, playing the cooped-up Van Daans in that famous attic immortalized in Anne Frank’s diary. Mrs. Van Daan was consoling her husband, who’d just been shamed for stealing food that was supposed to be shared with the entire hungry group, encouraging him to believe freedom was possible and reciting all the wonderful dishes she planned to prepare for him once back in her own kitchen — a kitchen that we in the audience knew she would never see again.
Then there was Emily Paton Davies, who portrayed Jeannette in The Quality of Life. Jeannette’s home had gone up in flames. Her husband, Neil, was dying of cancer. But she was one of those artsy-poetic, new-agey people who finds beauty in everything, even destruction and disaster. She babbled about the colors of a burned beam and described with complete equanimity how she herself would bring about a peaceful, transcendent — and hastened — death for Neil when the time came. But then she discovered that her cat, which disappeared during the fire, had died while attempting to make its way home, and suddenly the full extent of all the loss she’d been carrying engulfed her in a dark, despairing tide. At that moment, Paton Davies shattered your heart.
There was a remarkable love scene between Geoffrey Kent, playing the Mastiff, and Emily Van Fleet as the Moor Hen in this delightfully demented take-off on the lives of the Bronte sisters. Yes, the Mastiff actually is a dog and the Moor Hen an injured bird. He philosophizes in oddly broken but eloquent sentences; she, memory-challenged, forgets his philosophizing. The two actors played these roles with so much sweetness and depth that you accepted the entire absurd premise — banishing all questions about how they could possibly couple from your mind.
In the same production, Jessica Robblee’s character, Huldey, burst into song for some reason I can’t quite remember. And what a burst. The piece goes from flatly spoken statements through rock to ballad to the kind of chest-deep belt you’d expect from a murderess in the musical Chicago. The rendition by the multi-talented Robblee was so utterly insane, so full of outrageous flourishes and daring drops and rises, that you found yourself taken to fantastic places you’d never imagined before.
Best Season for a Set Designer
Winner: Brian Mallgrave, Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities
We’ve seen some brilliant set design this year, particularly from the talented artists at the Denver Center, but Brian Mallgrave’s inventive work for the Arvada Center — whether he was designing for glitzy main-stage musicals or more serious and/or experimental shows in the Black Box Theatre — demands recognition. We’re thinking about his gorgeous design for Plaza Suite, a 1960s hotel room that was all gold-and-white glory, with every detail attended to. You could lose yourself in those details: the soft gray-and-white sketch gracing the headboard of the bed, the sconces with little candle-shaped lights, even the pretty light switches on the walls, but most of all you were wishing you could lose yourself in the decadently luxurious suite and order room service.
When we talk about great performances, we tend to praise vitality, passion or the kind of strong, centered presence that takes us out of our everyday lives and immerses us in the world of the play. What was so miraculous about Augustus Truhn’s performance as Guy in Benchmark’s Wakey Wakey was how low-key it was. Truhn created a fading, profoundly tired man who roused himself periodically with great effort because of what he saw as his obligation to inform and entertain us, the audience. His voice was often so quiet that you found yourself leaning forward to hear him. You left the theater shaken by the sense that something had happened that was more deeply sad than you could fathom.
Mark Collins did a wonderfully convincing job with the understated and hugely difficult role of Neil in The Quality of Life. Neil seemed to have accepted his own death and found peace as he quietly walked the path his passionate wife had set out for the two of them. It wasn't until pretty far into the action that he finally revealed his fears and doubts, allowing a sad and long-smothered anger to surface.
As part of one of its best seasons in years, the Colorado Shakespeare Festival mounted King Charles III — a fascinating choice, particularly at a time when the limits of political power are under discussion and The Crown on Netflix is holding half of America in thrall. At the beginning of the play, Queen Elizabeth has died and Prince Charles just ascended to the crown. Like his real-life counterpart, he’s frustrated by the limited power of the monarchy, and we see the character by turns puzzled, angry, idealistic, petty and deeply kind. Now and then the spirit of his ancestors moves through Charles and he becomes brilliantly regal. It takes terrific skill and intelligence for an actor to express all of this, and the festival had the great luck to secure John Hutton — long a Denver Center favorite — for the role, which he filled to perfection.
Having interviewed workers in the poverty-ravaged steel and textiles town of Reading, Pennsylvania, for background, playwright Lynn Nottage placed the action of Sweat squarely in the insecure world of working people. Tara Falk played Tracey, the daughter of a German immigrant who takes a strong pride in her work. The characters, all of them complex, struggle with various life situations; race resentment arises along with the threat of an impending lockout at the steel mill where they work. Falk didn't portray Tracey from the outside; her interpretation never seemed adopted or put on. Instead, she brought this sad, tough, struggling woman to powerful and entirely believable life.
Union leader Faye is the heart of Dominique Morisseau’s Skeleton Crew, and as played by Perri Gaffney, she was unforgettable. A breast cancer survivor, Faye refuses to stop smoking. She’s flat broke because of a gambling habit, but turns down all offers of help, sleeping in her car or sneaking into her workplace on bitter nights. Faye is no saint, but life hasn’t been kind to her, and Gaffney revealed how deeply vulnerable and human she is.
Best Portrayal of Anne Frank
Darrow Klein, The Diary of Anne Frank, Arvada Center Black Box Theatre
I’ve seen several productions of The Diary of Anne Frank in which the lead character simply failed to convince me. These actors didn’t feel either authentically teenaged or authentically Jewish. And, please, don’t ask me what I mean by that: Of course, there isn’t a stereotypical Jewish look. But as a Jew who grew up among European refugees and later encountered the New York tribe, I’m familiar with the affect, mannerisms, dinner tables, inflections of our people. In addition, most of the Annes play the role for pure doe-eyed pathos. Yet the real Anne Frank was bossy, super-smart and sometimes rudely impulsive as only a teenager can be. Her diary shows her becoming kinder and more insightful as her long months in hiding pass. Darrow Klein understood this Anne Frank to her bones, and I’ve never seen a more powerfully convincing performance. The complexity of this Anne Frank made what we knew of her fate almost unbearably distressing.
Best Performance by an Actress in a Comedy
Finalists: Adriana Leigh Robinson, Thanksgiving Play, Curious Theatre Company; Kate Parkin, The Realistic Joneses, Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company; Kate Gleason, Plaza Suite, Arvada Center
Winner: Kate Gleason
In Curious’s Thanksgiving Play, Adriane Leigh Robinson owned the evening. Her character, Alicia, is meant to be a scene-stealer, and Leigh Robinson stole scenes with grace and aplomb. Yes, she’s astonishingly beautiful, which didn't hurt. And she has a lovely singing voice. But she also has the kind of stage presence that had you following her every gesture and change of expression with breathless and delighted attention.
Kate Parkin fascinated as the skitzy, sweet-sour Pony in The Realistic Joneses, adding a vibrating high note of charming eccentricity to an altogether very strong cast.
In Plaza Suite, Kate Gleason was required to play three separate and completely different women — a breathy young girl, a wealthy matron and a woman teetering on the edge of already crazy frayed nerves — in three different playlets by Neil Simon. And she owned them all.
Best Performance by an Actor in a Comedy
Gareth Saxe, Plaza Suite, Arvada Center
Gareth Saxe was Gleason’s partner in crime for Plaza Suite, playing a dignified cheating businessman, an arrogant young movie producer and the crazed woman’s equally crazed husband. He inhabited all these beings with pizzazz, even moments of dignity, but it was in the last role that he threw all caution to the winds and went flat-out crazy. I don’t remember when I’ve laughed so hard in the theater.
Best Direction of a Comedy
Lynne Collins, Plaza Suite, Arvada Center Black Box Theatre
We’ve established that the acting was brilliant, the comedic timing impeccable and the set a delight. We’re adding that the sound was evocative and the costumes splendid. These things don’t come together by accident. Credit for tech, casting and overall rhythm has to go to director Lynne Collins, who transformed an old warhorse of a play into an evening that got us laughing till our ribs ached.
You’d never have known that Heather Lacy stepped into the key role of Olivia three days before opening night, when the actor who was originally cast suffered an injury. Lacy’s performance was poised, assured and absolutely word-perfect. She created a vivid portrait of a vain, narcissistic alcoholic woman, who returns to the home of the daughter with whom she’s never been able to build a relationship and spends so much time drinking and pontificating about her love for conspiracy theorist Mae Brussell that she forgets to mend a single fence.
Best Actress in a Shakespeare Play
Emily Van Fleet, As You Like It, Colorado Shakespeare Festival
Emily Van Fleet coruscates as Rosalind, one of Shakespeare’s most brilliant heroines. As written, Rosalind is quick-witted, vulnerable in love, supple in speech, fierce when necessary and always utterly charming. To all this, Van Fleet added an appealing underpinning of toughness and courage.
This tie is quite a coincidence, since both actors took on the usually forgettable role of Sir Andrew Aguecheek.
I was knocked out by Rodney Lizcano’s Aguecheek at the Colorado Shakespeare Festival. He threw everything he had into the role, from his hair to his face to his fingertips to his ever-moving body and floppy socks. This was undoubtedly the best Aguecheek I’d seen in years of recurring Twelfth Nights. But then came the Denver Center’s fine production, and Cameron Folmar’s version. Folmar, too, tossed all caution to the winds. Folmar, too, was insane. And his Aguecheek was not only hilarious, but so puppyishly sweet that you had to fight back the impulse to rush onto the stage and stroke his adorable little blond head.
Best Direction of a Shakespeare Play
Chris Coleman, Twelfth Night, Denver Center Theatre Company
It’s good to have a generous budget — which the Denver Center certainly has — but it takes rare artistry and skill to use that budget wisely. The tech for this Twelfth Night was superb, with a clever, several-tiered set, warm lighting and playfully sumptuous costumes by Kevin Copenhaver. The casting was strong, too, just strong enough to allow the leads to hold their own against the group of comic characters who kept threatening to run away with the evening: Sam Gregory’s prancing, prating Malvolio, Kim Staunton’s rich-voiced Maria, Lawrence Hecht’s Sir Toby, and the already sufficiently lauded Cameron Folmar. Coleman also had the vision and wit to choose Tom Hagerman of DeVotchKa to compose original music, which was played on stage by musicians along with the actors themselves and added a fine, bright, original and sometimes wild series of notes to the evening.
Perhaps it’s the gloomy political atmosphere, the aging of the baby boomer generation or the growing movement to familiarize ourselves with death, but there's an increasing output of books, films and plays dealing with mortality. These three plays couldn’t have been more different, but death was in one way or another at the core of all of them. In Wakey Wakey, we experienced the expiring memories of a single man. The Quality of Life featured the struggle of two couples: One had suffered the death of a child; in the other, the husband was dying of cancer. The productions and scripts were first-rate.
United Flight 232, however, broadened the frame beyond the personal to look at the ways human beings respond to sudden danger, and how they interact. The piece dramatized the crash of a plane that took off from Denver in 1989 bound for Chicago. Amazingly, while 112 people died, 185 survived — thanks largely to the skill and dedication of the crew. As a result, we have a much deeper knowledge of what actually happens as a doomed flight hurtles downward. Many of the survivors were interviewed, and the interviews were adapted for the stage by Vanessa Stalling. The Catamounts production was well-acted and inventively staged in an almost-empty space, with audience members seated on metal chairs surrounding the action. Watching, we found ourselves pondering the role of pure blind luck in determining who dies and who survives versus the role of individual will and knowledgable decision-making. We were also forced to wonder about ourselves: How would we behave in the face of acute danger? Would we be brave or hysterical? Capable of self-sacrifice or willing to stumble over others’ prone bodies? Perhaps we’d quietly summon up the faces of those we loved or try desperately to call them.
This version of Once, staged by Len Matheo, was a rush, a blast, a burst of pure exhilaration, and a huge improvement on the sentimental touring production. Matheo found strong leads in John Hauser and Carmen Vreeman Shedd, as well as a group of talented and often wonderfully comic musician-actors to round out the cast. He speeded things up so that the music sounded more stimulating than soupy and the action felt vital. At least a couple of his musicians were purely electrifying: the stylishly eccentric, high-stepping violinist Allegra Ludwig Michael and Nelson Walker, playing both the Emcee and the cello.
It’s hugely to the credit of Aurora Fox artistic director Helen R. Murray that she decided to stage Caroline, or Change, a complex, challenging and significant musical with Kenny Moten directing and Trent Hines as musical director. The script is by Tony Kushner — best known for Angels in America — and the music comes courtesy of composer Jeanine Tesori, who also wrote the score for Fun Home. The production featured fine performances and an array of beautiful singing voices. So when you weren’t savoring the range and intelligence of Kushner’s script, you could just close your eyes and let the sound wash over you.
Pretty blond Roxie in Chicago shot her boyfriend because he was a jerk and she was tired of him, anyway. The boyfriend was abusive, but we didn’t feel too sorry for Roxie, because she was a mean and calculating little minx and — as played with sass and charm by Megan McGuire —could clearly take care of herself. Having sashayed into a women’s prison, Roxie used her notoriety to become famous as a chanteuse, and McGuire brought a glittering, sexy energy to all her numbers.
A big touring production of Once came through town this year; one of my problems with show was that I didn’t believe for a minute that their Girl was actually Czech. This made the repeated joke “I’m always serious. I’m Czech” sound more snidely parodistic than funny. But in the Miners Alley version, Carmen Vreeman Shedd owned the role. I really couldn’t tell if her understated but convincing accent was entirely accurate, because she was so charming and she sang and played the piano so beautifully that the cranky old critic in my head, the one that’s always looking for flaws, simply subsided, muttering into the shadows. As well he should have.
Best Performance by an Actor in a Musical
Winner: Leonard Barrett, Chicago, Phamaly
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A jazz singer with an extraordinary focus and energy and a style all this own, Leonard Barrett is a local treasure. He’s also one of the most generous and open-hearted performers around — you can tell from the way he works with fellow artists on stage. As corrupt lawyer Billy Flynn in Chicago, Barrett displayed a fast-flashing variety of voices and expressions. He was sometimes a little reminiscent of Jim Carrey and at other times more of Robin Williams, but at all times his singing was fabulous.
The issue of racism has been explored in many local productions this year, and from many angles — head-on, sideways, with humor, rage or irony. Hicks’s short explosion of a play, Flame Broiled, consists of a series of scenes that illustrate several forms of discrimination — and responses to discrimination — from homophobia to violence against women to lynching to recent murders of black men and women to less deadly and sometimes even humorous misunderstandings between the races. We hate to keep tossing around adjectives, but Flame Broiled invites them. It’s daring, intelligent, imaginative, crammed with meaning and passionately thoughtful. Local provided a stellar cast in Ilasiea Gray, Emma Messenger, Saxton Jay Walker and Gary Norman to give the script its due.
Playwright Josh Hartwell has explored a lot of ground. His work ranges from a long-ago play about an abusive woman (yes, it happens) and her hapless husband to a splattershock Christmas comedy to a far gentler comic version of A Christmas Carol. This year he created an exploration of the work and influence of Mae Brussell, aka The Queen of Conspiracy. Brussell, a friend of such celebrities as Frank Zappa, Henry Miller, John Lennon and Yoko Ono, was part meticulous researcher and part obsessed crank. She believed Charles Manson was a patsy, but she also sometimes displayed uncanny prescience. The play has parallel storylines. In one we see Brussell at work and interacting with her followers; the other reveals the relationship between a Brussell disciple and her estranged and non-believing daughter. This thoughtful and well-constructed work was a perfect offering for a time of murky truth and ubiquitous conspiracy theories.