The protagonist of Neil LaBute's play views the September 11 disaster as an opportunity: It means he can let his wife and children assume he died at the World Trade Center while he runs off with his equally contemptible mistress. And yet there were moments during the Paragon production when you felt a guilty empathy for both of them. Director Warren Sherrill's production of this uncomfortably honest play was first-rate, with a sparse, elegant set and evocative sound. Michael Stricker and Martha Harmon Pardee jostled brilliantly with each other as the soulless couple, their timing swift, precise and hungry.
Sure, it was a tiny role -- the woman didn't even really have a name -- but there was no mistaking the electricity that zinged through the air when Annette Helde shot on stage in her wheelchair and cut through the other characters' confusions and rationalizations with commands barked out in a fierce German accent. As authoritative in comic roles as in tragic ones, Helde has been sorely missed on local stages in recent months.
Assassins, with music by Stephen Sondheim, tells the story of assassins and would-be assassins of American presidents, from Booth to Oswald. With its controversial theme and difficult songs, this was an amazingly gutsy choice for a small company. Next Stage made it work with an excellent cast and a group of skilled musicians. Under the direction of Gene Kato, the production blew through the mind like an unsettling wind, hurling aside platitudes and raising a host of tormenting questions.
Isabella is a would-be nun, the sister of a young man whom Angelo, a religion-crazed deputy, condemns to death for fornication. Although she pleads for her brother's life, Isabella is in her own way as narrow and judgmental as Angelo; it is through suffering that she is eventually humanized. Isabella is a very difficult role to get right -- she's a tragic figure in a comedy, by turns cold and sympathetic, and given some of the most profound speeches Shakespeare ever wrote. Ruth Eglsaer confronted these problems with passion and integrity, and vanquished them; she made Shakespeare's language her own. In the early scenes, her Isabella had the chilly radiance of an icicle; her anguish later in the play tore at the heart. A stunning achievement.
For five years, some of the area's most interesting theater took place on a small, square stage above the galleries at the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art, courtesy of Brandi Mathis, artistic director for the space. There was Eric Bogosian skewering the zeitgeist, singer-actress Ethelyn Friend singing Songs My Grandmother Taught Me, Nancy Cranbourne kvetching about menopause, the subversive performance art of Michelle Ellsworth and the first ever Colorado performance of a work by Suzan-Lori Parks. Almost every performance found the place filled to overflowing. Mathis left her post last spring, a few months after directorship of the museum was taken over by Penny Barnow and Joan Markowitz. No one is saying why.
It takes a lot of poise and talent for a teenager to romance a middle-aged woman on stage, but that's what high school sophomore Scott Ryan was called on to do in Kimberly Akimbo. The protagonist is a teenage girl suffering from a rare disease that causes her to age at warp speed. Jeff can see the young soul behind the wrinkled facade, and he grows to love her. Ryan made his mark on this quiet but telling role and revealed a stage presence many older actors would envy.
He was lewd. He was lurid. He was omnisexual. He was delicious. Whenever Nick Sugar steps onto a stage, he owns it, and Dr. Frank-N-Furter is a role he was born to play. What can we say, except that he strutted and preened and sang and flashed that crimson-lipped, lemon-wedge-shaped smile until he'd worked his way into the nightmare fantasies of every person in the audience.
There were a number of fine performances in this edgy production, but the most memorable was that of Todd Coulter as the mad evangelist Charles Guiteau, who shot President James Garfield because he was angry at not being named ambassador to France. The real-life Guiteau wrote a poem before his execution, "I Am Going to My Lordy," that became one of the most grotesquely effective songs in the musical. Todd Coulter made an indelible impression as a mad and darkly luminous Guiteau -- particularly singing this song and high-kicking his way across the stage as he was led to the gallows.
Brian Mallgrave can produce a melodious soprano when he wants to, but he gave Sylvia St. Croix a strong and surprising baritone -- even though he played the role in drag. A multiple-threat performer -- Mallgrave can sing and act, be funny or serious, take on straight plays or musicals -- he was a hoot as bossy St. Croix, tutoring his nasty little child prodigy, arguing with her mother and sulking quietly but eloquently in corners when he didn't get his way.
Gina Schuh-Turner deployed a huge, bright voice, perfect poise and perfect timing in this extended piece of camp. In the first act, she was Judy Denmark, prissing around in a belled-out skirt and gauzy little apron as the perfect housewife and mother. In the second act, she transformed into stage goddess Ginger DelMarco and was dealing with two overwhelming mothers, a spying newspaper reporter, a beautiful maid who was intent on stealing her place in the spotlight, and her ruthless little daughter. Need we say that she more than held her own?

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