There's no expensive special effect or fancy set piece that can match the evocative power of a good storyteller.
That was the resounding message at the Stories on Stage "New Frontiers" performance Sunday at the Denver Performing Arts Center. The performance was the third offering in the Stories on Stage 2010-11 season, which marks the tenth year for the popular onstage series. It also marks the beginning of Anthony Powell's stint as the new artistic director.
The Stories on Stage formula is straightforward: a single actor stands on a stage marked only by a music stand, a microphone and some minimal set dressings. The compelling part of the spectacle comes in the quality of the text and, of the course, the raw power of the performers.
"They read fabulous short fiction onstage," explains Abbe Stutsman, Stories on Stage's executive director. "Our mission is once you hear a story, you begin to understand lives. It's theater of the mind, the imagination."
Sunday's trio of readings didn't disappoint on either count. The minimalism worked, even in the vast, airy expanses of the Stage Theater. Indeed, the scope of the hall's lofty spaces seemed to shrink -- standing amid throw rugs and house plants, the actors made the theater seem like a homey living room den, a space for anecdotes and stories shared among friends.
Chip Persons read an excerpt from Bill Bryson's "The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid," a nostalgic remembrance of a 1950s childhood drenched in TV serials and comic book exploits. ZZ Moor read Katherine Karlin's "Muscle Memory," a story of a young woman fighting to learn the welding trade in post-Katrina New Orleans. Jeanne Paulsen read Alice Munro's "Too Much Happiness," which relates the biography of the Russian Sophie Kowalevski, the first woman to earn a Ph.D in mathematics.
The readings' broader theme, one hinted at in the title, was tied in new steps, groundbreakings both social and personal. The more specific message of the "New Frontiers," however, came in the final two readings by Moore and Paulsen. Combined, the texts by Karlin and Munro highlighted different levels and tiers of womens' empowerment.
Kowalevski struggled against the social constructs of 19th century Russia and Europe to wrest her faculty position at a university in Sweden. Destiny, the fictional character in Karlin's piece, pushes against the deeply embedded boundaries of New Orleans culture in her quest to provide for her mother, to learn the trade of welding.
For all the distance between the two stories in terms of setting and chronology, both had a visceral effect, a quality created by two perfectly suited readers. Paulsen, a Denver Center Theatre Company veteran based in Seattle, paired Munro's straightforward, stark descriptions with a straightforward, almost scientific style. Moor, meanwhile, brought a varied cast of characters to life in her descriptions of the New Orleans quays and docks. Destiny, Destiny's mother, the laborers crowding the New Orleans docks, the welder/instructor/former musician Augustine Boudry -- all of the characters found life and power in Moor's voice. And her reading of "Muscle Memory" had a special significance: author Katherine Karlin was in the audience and later responded to the audience's questions during a talkbalk.
While Persons' reading from "The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid" stood apart for its content and its humorous tone, its evocative imagery from life in 1950s suburban America aligned well with the larger, "New Frontiers" theme. Persons brought a constant energy and sense of immediacy to Bryson's childhood recollections, memories rooted in the budding atomic age and its technological marvels. From describing a child's over-the-top superhero outfit to cataloging the breadth of new gizmos available to Americans in the 1950s, Persons created a compelling historical portrait.
Stories on Stage may have a new artistic director, but Sunday's performance showed that the company has not lost its skill for the fundamental elements that make the series so special in the local theater landscape. It's the power of words -- raw and unadorned -- harnessed by top-notch performers. The effect is timeless.
The next Stories on Stage performance, titled "Secrets and Lies," will be Nov. 13 at the Denver Civic Theater.
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