Best Actress in a Musical 2007 | Jean Arbeiter | Best of Denver® | Best Restaurants, Bars, Clubs, Music and Stores in Denver | Westword
Aldonza is the peasant wench that Don Quixote insists is his beloved Dulcinea. Jean Arbeiter, a fine singer and actress, made her so dirty and fierce, so angered by Quixote's fulsome praise ("Once, just once, would you look at me as I really am?") that when she finally capitulated, singing gently to the dying old madman, it was hard to hold back tears.
Among many fine performances in musicals this season, Geoffrey Kent's Officer Lockstock stood out. It's a very clever, funny role as written, and Kent played it with relaxed authority: He made the officer-narrator stiff-necked and formal, but every now and then threw in a moment of pure gyrating lunacy.
The best comics actually get inside their characters; no matter how outrageous the people they play, they force themselves to believe every idiotic word and gesture. Think of the rich gallery of characters created by Carol Burnett and Tracey Ullman. Genevieve Baer is in this camp. She's a very talented mimic (as well as a good singer), but the best thing about her portrayal of Little Sally in Urinetown was that she resisted the temptation to parody a part that's pure parody itself, making the character part knowing street kid, part wistful innocent and altogether funny and watchable.
Leonard Barrett is a tremendously appealing actor whose jazz-singing background shows in his work; there's always something improvisational and unexpected about it, and also a hint of hidden depths. There's kindness and humor, too. As Norman in Bas Bleu's The Dresser, Barrett's job was to get an egotistical actor whose mind and career were both waning on to the stage as King Lear. A fussy, sad clown with a will of iron, Norman's entire life was wrapped up in the old actor's career. In another extraordinary performance, Barrett played the Stage Manager in PHAMALy's Our Town, a role that calls on the actor to speak directly to the audience. It wasn't that Barrett breached the fourth wall, exactly, but that when he spoke, it simply wasn't there. There was just the actor talking quietly, humorously and profoundly to your very soul.
We saw a lot of Simone St. John this season, from her tightly wound Jocena in Shadow Theatre Company's Four Queens through the angry little spitfire she created for the same company's Waitin' 2 End Hell. But she really outdid herself in the lighthearted comedy Plenty of Time, aging convincingly from a bratty sixteen-year-old to a dignified matron as her character explored politics, work, marriage and the meaning of love. Finally, St. John appeared as Martha Washington's slave, Ona Judge, in Curious Theatre Company's production of A House With No Walls, bringing passion to an otherwise rather talky and didactic play. We can't wait to see who she becomes next.
This light comedy by Theresa Rebeck had many sharp lines, but it pretty much stayed afloat on the charm and talent of Diana Dresser, playing a young mother about to re-enter the dating scene. Dresser tried on various items of clothing and a few pairs of shoes, periodically asking the audience for an opinion. Prone on the bed, she wriggled into her pantyhose in one of the funniest scenes we'd encountered all year. She was scatty; she was brash; she was scared; she was vulnerable. And we were with her every step of the way. It's almost de rigueur for a female comic to be plain and to make a trademark of rueful comments about her looks, but there's also a tradition of scatty, beautiful comediennes, from England's gorgeous Kay Kendall, who died far too young in the late 1950s, to the effervescent Jenna Elfman of Dharma & Greg. Dresser could easily join these ranks, but we have a suspicion she's equally good at the serious stuff.
Okay, a cast consisting of John Hutton, Martha Harmon Pardee and Karen Slack gives a director a lot to work with, but under Jamie Horton's direction, these already fine actors shone even brighter. They worked with feeling and discipline, every gesture and intonation perfect. Written by Steven Dietz, Fiction was a great choice for Curious -- wordy and witty and raising questions about the link between fiction and reality, truth and lies. The cleanness and precision of Horton's production offset the ambiguity of the work the way a few drops of lemon juice can zing up the flavor of a dessert. Horton left Denver last year after decades of performing with the Denver Center Theatre Company, and we're only beginning to understand the depth of the loss we've sustained.
This year, Dodd gave us both a beautifully conceived and executed version of Pinter's The Caretaker and the best production of The Weir we've seen in Denver. The Weir is an odd, spooky piece, a collection of ghost stories told by lonely souls in an isolated Irish pub. Dodd knew exactly how to bring out the strands of longing and meaning beneath the script, and his cast, led by the luminous Laura Norman, was uniformly compelling. In addition to a deep love and respect for theater, Dodd brings to his work a gentleness and sensitivity unique in this area.
Sarah Ruhl's play weaves elements of magic and mystery. Set in the expensive home of a couple of New York doctors and moving to a bright, sunny balcony, with a thematic focus on cleanliness and creative chaos, it requires a designer with a strong sense of color and contrast who's also interested in the dynamic between freedom and enclosure. Alexander Dodge created a gray-and-white set with cool, elegant lines that featured an abstract but vaguely human-looking sculpture. For the second act, walls began to dissolve along with the characters' limitations. The production's visual elements were so beautiful, they provided a stunning aesthetic experience in themselves, quite apart from the play.
Buntport is located in a cavernous warehouse on the outskirts of town. Some theater groups might find this a difficult space to work in, but not the Buntporters, who use it as a goad to higher and higher flights of ingenuity. They've performed in front of a van that they push from place to place or in a series of cages strung from the ceiling. They've said their lines while sliding along on artificial ice. They've tried every kind of configuration of seats and platforms. For A Synopsis of Butchery, the troupe shrunk the acting area to a small, lighted box representing an ornate, old-fashioned, steeply raked stage. The resulting sense of artificiality only deepened the focus and intensity of the play. For the duration of the evening, this small space contained all the fervor of a bereaved mother and all the odd, dark, romantic notions the Victorians harbored about life and death.

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