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Buntport mined an odd little piece of Victorian history for this play. Washington Irving Bishop was a mentalist, possibly a bit of a fraud. He collapsed on stage one night, and an autopsy was immediately performed. His mother, Eleanor Fletcher Bishop, was convinced that he had been cut up while still alive, murdered by a doctor's curiosity about his brain. She wrote a book called A Synopsis of Butchery of the Late Sir Washington Irving Bishop (Kamilimilianalani) a Most Worthy Mason of the Thirty-Second Degree, the Mind Reader, and Philanthropist and dedicated her life to the search for justice and the prevention of similar catastrophes. There is only one certain proof of death, she informed us sternly in the play: putrescence. Fletcher Bishop took to the road in a series of lecture-performances, and this device shaped Buntport's play, which is kind of funny and kind of creepy and reveals both the woman's monstrous, smothering egotism and her genuine grief. It was the smartest, most interesting locally written piece we'd seen in quite a while.
Director Ethan McSweeny had his actors use a deliberately arch, hammy style for the first twenty or thirty minutes of this play, and even though the script is ironic and humorous as written, the style grated. But as the action continued, the play -- a kind of swirl of images and words surrounding the affair between a contemporary Palestinian woman and a New York Jew who finds himself somehow reenacting portions of the Arabian Nights -- began to enchant. Grote is an intelligent, deep-thinking playwright who is looking for new forms to fit the bold, original things he wants to say. How lucky for us that DCTC artistic director Kent Thompson decided to have him say them here.
It's very hard for playwrights to get their work produced, yet without production, it's impossible for a playwright to hone his craft. And new playwrights are, of course, the heart and soul of a living theater culture. Curious has joined a group of theaters nationwide that believe in showcasing new work -- even guaranteeing three or more productions for each work they select. The resultant "rolling" world premiere allows the play to evolve through testing by several audiences, casts and directors.
Artistic director Kent Thompson has taken strides toward his goal of bringing the work of more women and writers of color to the Denver Center. He has also instituted an annual two-day New Play Summit. Jason Grote's 1001 was seen at last year's summit before being mounted this February. This year saw readings of new plays by Theresa Rebeck, Evangeline Ordaz and Neal Bell, as well as an adaptation of Kent Haruf's novel Plainsong by Eric Schmiedl. We look forward to seeing where Thompson takes us next.
You knew from the moment you entered the theater and saw David Lafont's beautifully detailed set -- stacks of papers, a hanging toilet seat, a shopping cart, a bucket set under a leak in the ceiling -- that someone had put a lot of thought into this production, someone with an understanding of subtlety, a passion for detail and an acute sense of place. That someone was director Terry Dodd, who also assembled a first-rate cast. The owner of the disheveled flat -- sad, slow, befuddled Aston -- was played to perfection by Warren Sherrill, who gave the character a subdued and penetrating sweetness. There were also Jarrad Holbrook as Aston's vicious brother, Mick, periodically interrupting his own romantic monologues with jarring spurts of violence, and Jim Hunt as the whiny, manipulative tramp Davies, invited by Aston into the flat. In a play that's all about mystery, futility and power, these three actors gave performances riveting in their focus and intensity. Of course, it always helps to have a brilliant script like Harold Pinter's to work with.
You know a theater's something special if you always find people of all ages and types in the audience, and if you keep hearing yourself recommending the place to friends (and, later, the friends call up to thank you). From script to set, this troupe of seven creates every piece they mount from scratch. They're youthful, literate, experimental and unpretentious; on stage, the actors often manage to be both profound and silly beyond belief at the very same moment. Of Buntport's three plays this season, Winter in Graupel Bay was the least successful, but it was still a soulful, interesting mixture of joy and melancholy. The other two were absolute winners: Something Is Rotten, the Buntporters' insane take on Hamlet in which Ophelia was played by a live goldfish and her father, Polonius, by a Teddy Ruxpin bear; and A Synopsis of Butchery, which explored the Victorian obsession with death, the occult and premature burial.
This charming small musical calls on audience members to join the spelling team on stage every night. On the night I attended, a tall, dark man was one of the people who responded. Word was he was an actor, but we never learned his name. The man's poise was extraordinary, and his delight in being onstage infectious. Furthermore, he managed to extend his time there well into the action by calmly spelling out one difficult word after another, to the bafflement of the cast and the delight of the audience.
It's just too easy to enter a theater, sit back and wait to be terrified, amazed, moved or entertained. Theater is a live medium that works best when audience members are involved and there's a genuine current between them and the actors. When you attend Shadow Theatre Company productions, you usually feel a distinct sense of ownership among the viewers. People sigh at sad moments and laugh generously at happy ones. When the youthful Quatis Tarkington, playing an elderly man and kneeling at his lover's feet, asked for help getting up, there was a sympathetic groan from parts of the audience. Best of all was the jovial response to Four Queens, No Trump. The play is centered on bid whist, and it was clear the audience knew the game. They cheered some moves, tut-tutted over others, even offered instruction. And though the actors didn't respond directly, you could tell all this empathy revved up their performances.
He's a would-be Black Panther; she's the spoiled, underage daughter of a Martha's Vineyard couple. After a night of sex, they agree to meet again, and the once-yearly affair continues for decades. He fights overseas. She becomes first a fire-breathing feminist and then a successful businesswoman. Years pass, and finally the couple faces the question of what exactly this relationship means to them and whether they should continue or let it die away. Has it been real life or a detour? Does it represent love? This is John She'vin Foster's take on Bernard Slade's Same Time Next Year, and it's sweet and funny and sometimes profound. Under the direction of Jeffrey Nickelson, Shadow gave the play a charming production, and Nickelson's young actors, Quatis Tarkington and Simone St. John, gave impeccable performances and demonstrated a real chemistry together.
Germinal picked a perfect time to stage this update on Moliere, a spoof of hypocritical religiosity. Among a strong cast, Michael Shalhoub stood out in the lead. His Tartuffe was juicy and outrageous, utterly repulsive and periodically rather appealing. Shalhoub's mobile, clearly defined features glistened with lustful sweat as he pursued the beautiful Elmire; the scene in which he rehearsed his dishonest sermon was a study in the art of inspired hamming -- gutsy, grimacing and side-achingly funny.

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