BEST BOREDOM BUSTER 2006 | Denver Center Theatre Academy Theatre Daze | Best of Denver® | Best Restaurants, Bars, Clubs, Music and Stores in Denver | Westword
School vacations sound good on paper, but when the break actually arrives, children and parents are suddenly faced with a lot of hours to fill. Theatre Daze provides a great stopgap for vacationing kids ages three to twelve. The program offers fully planned and expertly taught daylong activities that include art projects, voice and movement training, play-making and more. At the end of the day, young participants come home with smiles on their faces. So do their parents, who know a good thing when they see it.
Thaddeus Phillips has a knack for simultaneously thinking large and small: huge themes, ingenious low-tech devices for carrying them out. He can create a desert from a sand-filled suitcase, an army out of toy soldiers. In The Earth's Sharp Edge, he brought Palestinian guerrilla Leila Khaled back to life, and he once performed two Shakespeare plays by himself on a single evening, using such objects as a plastic flower and a high-heeled shoe as the other characters. El Conquistador! told the story of Polonio Castro, a Colombian peasant and lover of telenovelas, whose crops were wiped out by U.S. aerial spraying and who took a job as doorman at a apartment building in Bogota. The tenants -- all played on video by well-known Colombian actors -- turned out to be a crazed and outrageous lot, some of whom were involved in very shifty activities. Drugs, murder and a case of mistaken identity entered Polonio's life, which soon resembled his telenovelas. Phillips makes his own theatrical magic, combining the joy of a four-year-old absorbed in play with a sophisticated understanding of the possibilities of theater.
This was a bridge year for the Denver Center Theatre Company. Former artistic director Donovan Marley went out in style with the beautiful sepia visuals of Fire on the Mountain, a compilation of music, photographs and accounts of the lives of miners that became more and more tragically relevant as accounts of modern mining accidents multiplied. Marley also oversaw a rich and lively The Madwoman. In the fall, Kent Thompson blew in to take things over and shake them up, increasing the overall number of productions, focusing on new plays -- particularly those by women and people of color -- and reaching out to the community and other theaters around the country. There have already been a couple of clunkers on his watch, but you really can't fault a fall and early spring that included the exquisite comic timing of A Flea in Her Ear, a potent staging of Arthur Miller's All My Sons and a production that shone the light of reason and understanding on the grim comedy Measure for Measure.
It's a telling comment on the shortage of roles for women that almost no local actress has worked in more than one or two productions this year, but Erica Sarzin-Borrillo made her two appearances -- in Poignant Irritations at the Mizel Center and A Delicate Balance at Germinal Stage Denver -- count for a lot. Her Agnes in A Delicate Balance was all haughty, enameled elegance, the head of a crazed household, fighting to keep things in balance through meticulous attention to routine. In Poignant Irritations, she played Alice B. Toklas, the woman who dedicated her life to Gertrude Stein and became the narcissistic poet's maid, secretary, wife, muse and even writing paper. Borrillo made the character self-consciously affected -- as was fitting for the hostess of Parisian salons -- but also a vulnerable and conflicted woman.
Sometimes Ed Baierlein makes it look almost too easy. Along with his wife, Sallie Diamond, he is the soul and driving force behind Germinal Stage Denver, the city's oldest serious theater company, directing plays he selects and starring in many of them. Baierlein's performing style is so low-key and relaxed that it's easy to miss the skill and authority that shape it. In Habeas Corpus, he played Wicksteed, a doctor disgusted with sex because he's examined so many genitalia. Disgusted, that is, until the nubile, young Felicity swans into his orbit. Baierlein also brought ferocious but carefully repressed depths to the upper-middle-class Tobias of Edward Albee's A Delicate Balance. But it was in Heartbreak House that he showed the passion that animates his work, particularly in the magical scene in which the female protagonist, Ellie, realized her love for him, and he advised her with soul-penetrating sincerity not to marry for money: "You are going to let the fear of poverty govern your life, and your reward will be that you will eat, but you will not live." It was one of those moments that stay with you long after a play's over.
Two of the season's most memorable productions were the work of Israel Hicks. The Madwoman, an update of Giraudoux's Madwoman of Chaillot, focuses on the grandly near-destitute Countess Aurelia, who saves New York from greedy contractors. Hicks's production was brilliantly cast: Kathleen M. Brady was an inspiring Aurelia, and Rachel Duvall a gentle joy as the waitress, Irma. But there was also strength, joy and vitality throughout the ensemble, with exciting performances filling every niche and corner of the stage. When actors work with this much exuberance, you know there's inspiration coming from the director. Hicks assembled another extraordinary cast to give August Wilson's Gem of the Ocean -- a work of oceanic power and depth -- its full due.
Bug was a study of psychosis -- an involving thriller without a lot of psychological complexity. The protagonist, Peter, moved in with a drug- and booze-addled woman and infected her with his phobia about bugs. Pretty soon the cheap motel room was filled with bug repellants and he was mutilating himself, even tearing out one of his own teeth, in the belief that his body was infested. It takes a lot of generosity and guts for an actor to give himself body, soul and spirit to a role -- especially one this taxing -- but that's exactly what Reid did. He was terrifying and understated at the same time, and you could feel him searching desperately for a footing through the descending darkness of his madness.
What is there to say about Charles Weldon, other than that he's brilliant? In Gem of the Ocean, he played Solly Two-Kings, a man of great depth and courage, an escaped slave who risked his life and his freedom working on the underground railroad. Two-Kings could transmute dog shit into something pure and valuable, and while he was unable to rest or to set down the staff that represented his struggle while injustice existed, he did not want to shed blood. Weldon knows how to play the complex music of an August Wilson script. He explored every facet of this heroic, almost-biblical character, and made Two-Kings as human and affable as he was strong.
Though not a perfect play, George Bernard Shaw's Heartbreak House is a brilliant and thought-provoking one. The study of English upper-class culture in decline revealed itself as sexy as well as funny under the guiding hand of Ed Baierlein. The main characters -- Captain Shotover, a retired seafarer, and Ellie Dunn, the smart and spunky young woman who realizes she loves him -- were beautifully played, and there was strong work from the rest of the cast, which included a pair of terrifying sisters and some rather weak-kneed men. It's a talky play, but everyone spoke their lines with enough confidence and wit to make this an enjoyable rendition of a fascinating play.
It doesn't matter how much you praise Jamie Horton, you're never being hyperbolic. He's a deeply talented actor, at home in classics and contemporary work, comedy and tragedy -- well, perhaps with a slight tilt toward comedy. In A Flea in Her Ear, Horton was in his element, playing two very different characters: the humorless, upper-class Victor and his physical double, the alcoholic hotel porter Poche. Horton didn't need gimmicks to help us differentiate between the two characters; he gave each of them slightly different characteristics but an entirely different soul. And, naturally, he handled the split-second timing demanded by farce with absolute aplomb.

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