Hard to say if it was dance, theater, circus or dressage, but whatever it was, Cheval Théâtre provided an astonishing evening of entertainment during its extended Denver run last fall. Sitting in the audience, you sensed some mysterious, Cirque du Soleil-influenced story must be responsible for the goings-on in the sawdust ring under a tent in the parking lot of the Pepsi Center -- there were evocative costumes, golden coins, a fallen horse and rider amid swirls of smoke -- but the plot didn't really matter. What mattered was the magnificence of the horses, beautiful animals that represented some seventeen breeds and had names like Gadjal, Chabo, Dansk and Hercule; the grace and skill of the riders; and the extraordinary, almost mythic relationship between the animals and their humans.
Denver should be grateful for the foresight and dedication that originally gave birth to the Denver Center Theatre Company, which has assembled a talented group of artists and every year offers an eclectic and intelligent mix of plays -- classic and contemporary, angry and light, humorous and tragic. The production values are almost always impeccable. This year's standouts were a newly translated Cyrano de Bergerac, Dinner With Friends and A Skull in Connemara. Though there's the occasional misfire, you always feel in safe hands here.
Coyote on a Fence opened soon after the September 11 terrorist attacks, and it says much for the production that it retained its strength and seemed both true and important in the face of those terrible events. Bruce Graham's play examines the death penalty in America and concerns two men on death row. One is a psychologist convicted of murdering a drug dealer, the other a skinhead who blocked the door of a black church with his truck and set fire to the building, killing 37 people. The play asks serious questions about the value of lives such as this and, by extrapolation, all human life. Chip Walton directed his first-rate cast at the Acoma Center with a sure hand, and Gene Gillette turned in a riveting performance as the childish and terribly damaged skinhead.
We don't quite know what to make of Thaddeus Phillips, who managed -- all by himself -- to perform two full-length Shakespeare plays, King Lear and the Tempest, during one strange and coldly electrifying evening at Denver's Buntport Theater and who later amazed a sparse crowd at the historic Rossonian Hotel with a loose narrative about how he learned to tap dance. The latter also involved a tribute to his teachers and a trip to Cuba, along with some dazzlingly fast tap displays. Phillips creates a world on stage the way a kid makes a city out of blocks. He uses objects -- a high-heeled shoe, a cigarette, a grinning Javanese puppet -- as stand-ins for other characters. Though we have no way of defining him, we plan to be there for whatever he comes up with next.
Around Christmastime, the Hunger Artists brought James Joyce's The Dead to lyrical life amid the gleaming lamps and dark wood of the Byers-Evans House Museum in Denver. The reading was adapted and directed by Jeremy Cole, and it was a jewel, glowing and multi-faceted, communicating all the wistful power of Joyce's short story as well as the expressiveness of his language. The performers seemed to genuinely love the text, and they gave themselves to it with humility and quiet passion. Among the standout performances were those of warm-throated Nancy Solomon as Aunt Julia and Diane Wziontka as the grief-driven Gretta.
This is a play about the sole survivor of a nuclear holocaust. Or about a man playing that survivor on a stage. Then again, the man may be Adam, tending the Garden of Eden. There's a woman directing the play. Sometimes she's helpful, sometimes mocking, sometimes downright capricious. Maybe she's God. Israeli director Ami Dayan's The End, created in collaboration with Open Theatre alumna Lee Worley, is an exploration of human nature and the consolations of art. It pays homage to Shakespeare, Chekhov and Beckett and is particularly relevant now, as the Middle East threatens to burst into flames. In production at the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art, the play packed the kind of wallop that sent you out of the theater thoughtful, dazed and oddly elated.
It's impossible to imagine anyone matching Nancy Cranbourne's lunatic genius in Two Women Avoiding Involuntary Hospitalization: A Hormonal Cabaret. Since she's also a dancer, her comic bits -- most of them created through improvisation -- involve her head, her heart, her soul, her mind, and every nerve and muscle of her body. That's why she can have you howling with laughter one moment and genuinely moved (usually by something utterly nonsensical) the next. Watch her as a full-out diesel dyke trying to bring the requisite seductive charm to "Hey, Big Spender" and getting looser and goonier as she goes along, though never an iota more feminine. Note how she whispers "Ssshhh" to the crinkling bag while trying to hide from her roommate the fact that she's sneaking chips. Cranbourne loves these characters, and she makes the audience love them too. Could this woman succeed in a serious role? Could she play one of Shakespeare's women? Who cares?
There's a lot of acting talent in Denver, so best actor is a hard call to make. How do you compare a larger-than-life performance like Bill Christ's Cyrano with Gene Gillette's affecting portrayal of a skinhead in Coyote on a Fence? Or to Brett Aune's squawks and flutters in The Swan? What about Nicholas Sugar as the leering emcee of Cabaret? Or David C. Riley, with his manic energy in Brother Mine? But in the end, we went with Christ by a nose, because his performance in the title role of Cyrano de Bergerac deserves the recognition. It's a huge, challenging role, and Christ had the chops, the presence, the physical endurance and the sheer heart to fill it magnificently. In the Denver Center Theatre Company's production, his performance was pure poetry.
Director Ed Baierlein knows his onions. For his production of the Edgar Lee Masters classic Spoon River Anthology at the Germinal Stage, he kept the production values low-key and snared the services of six fine and very different actors. The script is less a play than a collection of monologues, spoken by the imagined dead of a small town; some are humorous and a couple affectionate, but most are filled with bitterness and regret, and the actors are called on to play many roles. Under Baierlein's direction, they gave themselves fully to the text, becoming vessels for Masters's words and for his ghosts. In the process, they created a changing and absorbing tapestry of sound and meaning.
Rachel York is a spectacular performer, larger than life and meriting a boxload of descriptors: beautiful, passionate, volcanic (yet subtle), able to rage or weep on the instant, mesmerizing. The finest element in a very fine production of Kiss Me, Kate, York gave Cole Porter's brilliant score everything it required, singing "So in love..." with profound warmth and emotion, finding a ferocious chest-deep growl for "I Hate Men." Next time, we'd like to see her given a romantic partner who's her match for energy and charisma. A young Kevin Kline would do...

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