Theater

Curtain Call: Reflections on Two Decades of Reviewing Denver Theater

Westword theater critic Juliet Wittman.
Westword theater critic Juliet Wittman. Zachary Andrews
Sometimes you find yourself sitting in a drafty, ramshackle room on a winter’s night, rain spattering the floor, an audience of perhaps twenty distributed on splintery risers around the room, shadows in the corners, and a strangely unmoored performance slowly taking place on a platform in the center. A cat slides in and slinks across the set. No one in the cast seems to see it. You’re grateful for the distraction, but also sad for the emaciated cat. You start making rescue plans, trying to figure out how to capture the animal and take it home. But you've been sitting here forever, and now the cat is gone. The dialogue drones on. You realize there is no going home. You will never be able to walk out into the blessed cold night again. This is the hell you’ve been condemned to, though you’ve no idea for what crime. This is the life of the theater critic.

But also this: You’re dancing up the stone steps of the outdoor Mary Rippon Theatre at the University of Colorado to Beyoncé’s “Crazy in Love” playing over the sound system, having just watched Geoffrey Kent’s rich, lovely, zizzy version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a production set in the 1920s and full of surprises — horrifying, hilarious, and flat-out amazing. You’re wishing the evening had gone on forever, and for several days afterward, memories of the show return and make you happy.

Almost exactly a year ago, after a couple of days of agonized discussion and speculation among theater artists, every theater in Denver closed down. Since then, there’s been a lot of creativity as companies manage to practice and stream their art so as to stay connected to home-bound audiences. This month, as vaccinations become more and more available and the worst of the epidemic seems to be subsiding — fingers crossed — there’s a kind of joyful murmur in the air, a sense of art stirring to life. No one knows the exact dates, but everyone’s expecting joyous reopenings within months, perhaps weeks.

So it’s bittersweet to be leaving the critic’s role at this particular moment after nearly twenty dedicated years. There are several reasons: Age. Fatigue. A novel I’m planning to bring out and another in the embryonic stages. A sense that new blood and a new approach to covering theater are needed. You’ll still see me in theater lobbies now and then, and find an occasional blog post on my website or an article in this paper. But the weekly routine that shaped my life for so long — Friday night at the theater; frantic writing all day Saturday; another evening of theater; more writing; two reviews completed, revised and turned in by Monday morning — that routine is over.


What do I hope to have accomplished in all that time? It’s hard to put it into words. Renowned dance critic Deborah Jowitt emphasized that theater is an ephemeral art form, and the production you’re seeing is like one of those stars that wink on one night and then disappear forever. Even if the performance is repeated for a few weeks or eventually revived, there are always shifts in emphasis and meaning. It’s the job of a reviewer, Jowitt said, to create a kind of buzz around the event, an ongoing ripple that allows it to move beyond the original time and space and out into the world. The critic also creates a written record in which readers can find something of the history of local theater and perceive the shapes and patterns of that history.

We have obligations both to the artists and the community at large. I see the individual review as a mirror angled toward the latter to entice people into the theater or warn them away. In addition, it can add context or analysis and help deepen understanding or appreciation. The mirror is also angled toward the artists, helping them evaluate what they’ve accomplished, giving them encouragement or something to vehemently dispute, posing one key question: “This is what I saw. Is this what you meant?”
click to enlarge Juliet Wittman at a reading at the Boulder Book Store. - LEIGH CHAVEZ BUSH
Juliet Wittman at a reading at the Boulder Book Store.
Leigh Chavez Bush
No one should take the critic’s word for gospel. Critics aren’t meat inspectors, stamping a production “prime,” “choice” “standard” or “commercial.” We’re just us. Limited. Shaped by our own experiences and tastes. Sometimes insightful, sometimes eccentric, sometimes downright stupid. And always opinionated. I’ve loved scripts that thoughtful, intelligent friends found pointless, hated productions everyone else seemed to love. At the end of Wicked at the Buell, for example, almost the entire audience rose to its feet clapping wildly while I nursed my injured eardrums and cursed a wasted evening. Did this mean I was wrong? Was I obliged to note in the review that mine was a minority opinion? Hell, no. The one time I tried, there was a tart response from my editor: “I’m not paying for other people’s opinions; I’m paying for yours.”

What about those times when I knew, through advance interviews, that the director was in love with the script and the lead actor had been yearning to play this particular role his entire life, yet both production and performance left me cold? How could I be so cruel as to say that in print? Should I soft-pedal the review? Again, I tried once, focusing on the few elements I admired. But it took me forever to soothe my conscience when a not particularly wealthy friend said she’d bought expensive tickets on the basis of my review.

Here are things about the critic’s life I won’t miss: leaving home on a snowy night for the drive to Denver; dragging myself to a production when I’m fighting a nasty cold; trying to rouse some interest in a play I’ve seen too many times before; realizing in the middle of act one that I have to pee and there’s no way of getting to the ladies’ room without scrambling over a row of knees. Worst of all: enduring a script that strikes me as sentimental or clichéd, or acting that’s all show and no feeling. I’m happy to never have to see another Death of a Salesman, which always strikes me as one long whine, or a Shakespeare play directed by someone who finds Shakespeare a bore and thinks he himself can do better, cutting, interpolating, shifting scenes around, tossing in unfunny bits and encouraging his actors to improvise until the text drowns under the extraneous weight.

But there’s an awful lot I will miss. It has been a privilege to watch the Denver scene develop over the years, and I remember with huge pleasure and respect the artists and work of earlier days: Henry Lowenstein, who ran Bonfils Theatre on Colfax Avenue through the ’60s and into the ’70s, which is when I caught up with his work. A Holocaust survivor, Lowenstein introduced Denver to talented Black actors and woman directors at a time when inclusivity was rare. Later came Ed and Sallie Baierlein’s Germinal Stage Denver, which brought in the intellectual currents of much of the twentieth century, from Peter Handke to George Bernard Shaw, Pirandello to Tennessee Williams. The Changing Scene was run by dancers Al Brooks and Maxine Munt, who re-created the playful, experimental, anything-goes currents of 1960s New York. The results were sometimes brilliant, sometimes awful, but always vibrantly alive. An indelible image is of Al standing in front of his huge espresso machine in the lobby during an intermission, back ramrod straight, serving tiny cups of coffee to a group of women inmates who’d been allowed to come to Denver — under the watchful eye of their warden — to perform a play they’d worked on in prison, along with their somewhat baffled families. (There wasn’t a whole lot of espresso in this town back then.) Al had made his space available when no other local organization would, and for many of the inmates, the afternoon represented a chance not only to perform and earn applause, but to visit with family members unable to make the trek to Cañon City.

During the ’70s, the talented and irascible Frank Georgianna was creating professional productions in Boulder’s City Council chambers. He himself was one of the best actors around, and so many of his performances still haunt me, especially this one: In Howard Barker's No End of Blame, subversive cartoonist Bela Veracek is exiled to England, having been censored in the Soviet Union, only to find himself censored again in his new home. At the very end of the play, crippled by a stroke and near death, Veracek, played by Georgianna, struggled to his feet, staggered toward the front of the stage, held out his hand and pleaded, “Give us a pencil.” In that moment, Georgianna embodied the artist’s passion, the determination to create at all costs.

I remember the very first production of the Denver Center Theatre Company in 1979, The Caucasian Chalk Circle, starring an extraordinary young actor I’d never heard of but who was shooting her way to fame: Tyne Daly. And, yes, she was amazing. I remember Jeffrey Nickelson’s Shadow Theater Company, founded in 1997 on a $500 donation and kept alive for a decade through his talent and vision. The company came up with all kinds of shows — insanely funny, deeply disturbing, illuminating — until Jeffrey’s untimely death in 2009. I wrote at the time, “Jeffrey was, above all else, an educator and an explorer of the human condition. He wanted to get to the heart of things, take the commonalities and differences he found there and transform them into vibrant, mind-blowing theater.”

The decades have been rich, and my mind is thronged with sounds and images. I really intended to list productions here that challenged my pre-conceptions, made me laugh till my sides ached, provided a toe-tapping great time, created an entirely new state of mind. I wanted to try and re-create transcendent moments and convey the sense of wonder the best theater inculcates. But the list would be unmanageably long. Acting is an art form that requires a huge amount of courage and humility, and I’ve seen a lot of brilliant acting over the years. Writers, composers and painters can toss away their failed efforts before anyone else sees them, but an actor explores and experiments in public. This requires guts. In a sense, actors die before every performance and are reborn into someone else’s soul and body as they step onto the stage.

On the weekend of March 13 last year, I had tickets to Small Mouth Sounds at the Arvada Center, which promised terrific acting and an intriguing script, and the latest offering by Buntport, Denver’s brilliant and hugely popular experimental company. Until Friday morning, all plans were set to go. By early afternoon, the doors had slammed shut.

It’s been one hell of a year.

It seems strange to be giving up the role I’ve loved and inhabited for so long in this season of glimmering hope. Words really can’t express the depth of gratitude I feel for the artistry and generosity of Denver’s theater people. It’s been an honor and a delight to follow their work from the critic’s strangely liminal space both inside and outside the community. But it’s wonderful to know that actors, directors, writers, speech and language experts, along with lighting, set, sound and costume designers, are once again reaching for their pencils and the work of creation is about to be renewed.

Although Juliet Wittman will no longer be reviewing theater productions, she'll still be writing for Westword — and we'll continue to cover local theater, as well as the rest of Colorado's cultural scene. If you have suggestions for stories, send them to [email protected]
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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