The Best Work in Denver Theater in 2019

Annie Barbour, Darrow Klein, Emily Paton Davies and Larry Cahn in The Diary of Anne Frank at the Arvada Center.
Annie Barbour, Darrow Klein, Emily Paton Davies and Larry Cahn in The Diary of Anne Frank at the Arvada Center. Matthew Gale Photography
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

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.

Best Memorable Comic Moment
Finalists: Geoffrey Kent and Emily Van Fleet, The Moors, Arvada Center Black Box Theatre; Jessica Robblee, The Moors
Winner: Jessica Robblee

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.

Augustus Truhn delivered a winning performance in Wakey Wakey. - MCLEOD9 CREATIVE
Augustus Truhn delivered a winning performance in Wakey Wakey.
McLeod9 Creative
Best Performance by an Actor in a Drama
Finalists: Augustus Truhn, Wakey Wakey, Benchmark; Mark Collins, The Quality of Life, Benchmark
Winner: Augustus Truhn

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.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Historical Drama
Winner: John Hutton, King Charles III, Colorado Shakespeare Festival

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.

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Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman