By 8 p.m., the place is jammed. Some in the audience look as young as high-schoolers, while others seem to be college students; there are couples, gay and straight, and a scattering of older folk. People greet each other and make plans for post-theater drinks. But they quiet down once Starship Troy: Fame begins. It's clear that many are familiar with both the genre and the five cast members. They're jazzed, empathetic and alert.
Those of us who love theater spend a fair amount of time bemoaning the fact that audiences are both aging and dwindling. It doesn't help that ticket prices in the big cities where serious theater is usually birthed are astronomical. Of course, theater — that "fabulous invalid," as George S. Kaufman dubbed it — has been dying forever and somehow always survives. But it's still disheartening to see it becoming more and more the province of a small elite.
A few years back, Denver Post critic John Moore staged an interesting experiment. He found several prominent Denverites who said they went to the theater seldom or never, then handed them tickets to various productions around town, interviewing them afterward to see if they'd enjoyed themselves. Most of them had. Sportscaster and writer Reggie Rivers was one of Moore's subjects. Several months later, I asked if he'd gone back to the theater. He shook his head. He liked to decide his evening's entertainment on the spur of the moment, he said, and he couldn't shake the idea that theater required formal clothes and advance planning.
This is precisely the image that Buntport Theater set out to overturn seven years ago, when the crew of Colorado College grads decided to come to Denver and make theater that was unpretentious and affordable. Their full productions are smart and creative but always approachable, and they regularly stage smaller, shorter and very cheap semi-improvisational events. Right now, Trunks, a simulated sitcom, plays every second Saturday, and every two months, Buntport hosts an open-mike event called Teacher's Pet.
Starship Troy, yet another of these informal efforts, is a dramatized cartoon, each episode lasting about 45 minutes. The premise: A dump truck orbits space on a mission to clean things up. Its addled crew includes all the usual Buntport suspects: Erik Edborg, who for some reason has dryer-duct tubing sticking out of his front and who cuddles a stuffed animal (a white rabbit or a puppy, I couldn't tell which); cynical Hannah Duggan; Erin Rollman as an expressionless android (watching Rollman trying to remain expressionless is a comic feast in itself); half-ape Brian Colonna; and Evan Weissman as...well, I'm not sure what, but something epicene and highly sexualized. An audience member volunteers as Ensign McCoy, who — in a tribute to South Park's Kenny, and perhaps to the Goon Show's Bluebottle before him ("You have deaded me again!") —gets killed in every show.
The troupe takes about two weeks to write these scripts, adjusting the action to whatever set is in place for weekend performances. On the evening I attend, it's the bar room for Geoffrey Kent's cowboy version of Macbeth. Kent himself is on hand as a guest actor. Adopting the broadest and most stereotypical mannerisms imaginable, he's teaching the crew to behave like cowboys — despite the girly leg warmers they all wear. They practice walking and spitting; saying "I reckon"; sitting around a campfire, making laconic conversation and periodically looking up at the sky. Also shooting folk. They persuade manly Kent to sway and vocalize with them on "I Sing the Body Electric"; in turn, he gets them involved in a stage fight — a messy tangle of legs, arms and bodies, fake blows, loud oofs and theatrically spinning heads.
None of this may happen when you see Starship Troy, because every episode is completely new — hence the happy returnees in the audience. This is throwaway theater in the best sense. If a line thuds to earth, no matter; it's gone as soon as it's said. If a piece of business is pure brilliance — too bad! It'll never be seen again, either. But what the hell, there's always another episode. And experience tells us it'll be a fresh, funny and invigorating tonic for the fabulous invalid.