Kent Thompson's first Shakespeare production in Colorado was the best the state had seen in years. What worked? Almost everything: The setting in fin de siecle Vienna, the music, the costumes, the cast, which included the luminous Ruth Eglsaer as Isabella, Brent Harris as a surprisingly human Angelo, John Hutton as a Duke who brings the affable manner of England's Prince Charles to his duties, Sam Gregory's sarcastic Lucio and a horde of vital performances in smaller roles. You could argue about Thompson's interpretation, but you couldn't dispute his directorial artistry.
Commissioned to create a play about Gertrude Stein for the Mizel Center for Arts and Culture, McCarl came up with this fractured, episodic meditation on Stein's art and relationship with the faithful Alice B. Toklas. Each scene was given a semi-nonsensical title -- "Scene Sic Tea Nine: Definition of a Secretary," "Scene 5,462: Testimony Against Gertrude" -- and the play consisted of jests, insights into Stein's writing or the times, bits of biography, character exploration. Some of the scenes were a wash, but others seemed a perfect marriage of language and feeling, as when Toklas, stung at being called Stein's secretary, looked up the dictionary definition of the word, while a hovering and irrepressibly punning Stein teased at it until it became wondrous. Many of the play's bons mots were worthy of Oscar Wilde, particularly delivered with actress Billie McBride's dry wit, or in Erica Sarzin-Borrillo's flute-like tones.
The men on America's death rows, their lingering, useless days, the terror of the hours until countdown: Most of us rarely think about them, but like the mad aunt in the attic, they are always there, haunting the fringes of consciousness. University of Denver's Sturm College of Law, in conjunction with Alliance Stage, brought the issue into the daylight recently, staging Tim Robbins's Dead Man Walking, based on the book by Sister Helen Prejean. The book and the play make the inhumanity of state-sanctioned execution clear while taking into account the rage and grief of victims' families. Dead Man Walking is, in part, agitprop, but it's agitprop in the most thoughtful and honorable tradition. The production at the Victorian was effective, sustained in large part by the beautiful and committed work of Terry Ann Watts as Sister Helen and Michael Richman's understated, passionate performance as convicted killer Matt Poncelet.
A CBS News poll revealed last fall that 51 percent of Americans believe that God created human beings in their present form. When Inherit the Wind was written, in 1955, religious attacks on evolution seemed safely in America's past, but since then, the anti-Darwinists have regrouped full force. This made Modern Muse's decision to stage this play -- a fictionalized account of the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial -- particularly timely. John Scopes, a young teacher in Dayton, Tennessee, was put on trial for teaching evolution. The Baltimore Sun donated the money for his defense and sent its most famous reporter, H.L. Mencken, to cover the proceedings. In the courtroom, defense attorney Clarence Darrow faced three-time presidential contender William Jennings Bryan for the prosecution. The lively production was a trenchant examination of the beliefs and contradictions at the nation's moral core.
On February 7, a group of people gathered at Germinal Stage Denver to remember Al Brooks and the theater that he and his wife, Maxine Munt, had run on Champa Street for more than thirty years. The group included actors, directors, dancers, writers, visual artists and Brooks's nephew, playwright Michael Smith, along with Smith's son, named Albert after his great-uncle. Some participants remembered Brooks as the man who had started their artistic careers; others commented on his commitment to a life in art; painter Charles Parsons spoke of first seeing the woman who would become his wife on the stage of the Changing Scene. Parsons also remembered Brooks attempting to parallel-park his brown Studebaker, smoking, hitting the car behind him, smoking, hitting the car in front of him, smoking, all the while talking non-stop. One of the most moving comments came from a playwright: "Everywhere, doors were slamming," he remembered. "But Al Brooks said, 'Come here. This is my space. Come here and work.'"
Denver Victorian Playhouse
The story of this theater, like much of Denver's history, was shaped by tuberculosis. At the turn of the previous century, George Swartz, a tuberculosis patient and Shakespeare aficionado, moved to the area for its dry, sunny climate and bought a house. He built a theater into his basement and presented all of Shakespeare's plays there. During its existence, the theater has gone through periods of use and periods of darkness. Paul Willet ran it from 1964 to shortly before his death in 1984, using the quaintly old-fashioned setting to present uncompromising plays. Wade and Lorraine Wood purchased the Victorian this year and are presenting an interesting and eclectic roster of plays. True to the gracious spirit of the place -- and the ghost of Paul Willet -- they serve tea, coffee and cookies during intermission.
Oriental Theater
Taking over one of those old, defunct theaters and turning it into something grand is a common fantasy. It's much less common that people actually do it. Why? Because many of these places are decaying pieces of crap that are fraught with dangers economic, psychological and physical. The contentious neighborhood-association meetings alone have sent many a wannabe theater owner to the nuthouse. When Scott LaBarbera and other partners began throwing shows in the Oriental Theatre last fall, it seemed like another well-intentioned escapade doomed to failure. But six months and a significant renovation later, the 78-year-old former movie house has emerged as one of the best new performance spaces in town, featuring a diverse slate of comedy, live music, community meetings, films and even a gong show. The Oriental demonstrates that west Denver can not only support such a venue, but desperately needed one all along.
Ogden Theatre
It's hard to remember a time when the Ogden Theatre wasn't a showcase for local and national acts. But it was just thirteen years ago that the old auditorium was bought by Doug Kauffman of Nobody in Particular Presents and turned into a music venue. Even though he brought the space up to code, the Ogden was known by musicians and fans for the dead sound quality, the bus-station bathrooms and generally gritty interior. That all changed this spring, when the Ogden finally got its much-needed facelift. The most noticeable improvement is the new wrap-around balcony and floor layout, which not only improves audience sight lines, but also the sound. And don't forget to check out the bathrooms.
The days when music lessons were a sign of wealth and privilege are over in Denver -- or, at least, they're on their way out, thanks to local jazz saxophonist Jason Justice. When Justice saw a need for better music education for children in poor urban communities, he formed Instrumentos de la Libertad, a non-profit organization dedicated to providing inner-city kids with free instruments and instruction by musician-volunteers. Not only does music enrich the soul, Justice figured, but studies have proven that it can actually add points to a child's IQ. Instrumentos is still in its fledgling stages and always in need of donations; for more information on how to help, visit www.instrumentosdenver.org.
Denver Inner City Parish/La Academia
Denver's performance-poetry scene has exploded in recent years, with readings, happenings, open mikes and slams nearly every night of the week. And while the Mercury Cafe still hosts the hottest slam every Sunday, and Cafe Nuba is still so hip it keeps outgrowing its host venues, Cafe Cultura is the city's freshest poetic form. The second Friday of every month, the cafeteria space of the alternative Denver Inner City Parish school in West Denver transforms into a makeshift performance space, with folding chairs, fluorescent lights and scores of talented young Chicano writers vying for a few minutes on the mike. The subject matter ranges from political to personal; somebody might sing their poem, or bring a guitar, or a drum, or a paintbrush. No matter the delivery, though, Cafe Cultura's bold young bards have plenty to say, and now they have an artful, community-oriented space in which to say it.

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