Best Theater Season 2007 | Buntport Theater Company | Best of Denver® | Best Restaurants, Bars, Clubs, Music and Stores in Denver | Westword
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.
We first met Ashley while she was watching one of those smarmy television shrinks with her teenage son, Justin. The shrink's advice to a sexually incompatible couple inspired her to reveal far more than Justin wanted to know about her relationship with his father. By conventional standards, Ashley was clearly a rotten mother. She teased and flirted with her son, forgot to track the medications for his mono, offered him pot and advised him to sleep with a lot of girls before settling down. And if one of them were to get pregnant, he was to make sure she had an abortion. "You'll be traumatized for, like, two days," she explained. Ashley's saving grace was the fact that she clearly adored Justin. Yes, the script was clever and original, but it was Angela Reed's light, humorous voice, lithe physicality and emotional openness that made it memorable.
Michael is a hyper-literate writer capable of dismissing the work of Rainer Maria Rilke as "infantile nonsense." But he has nonetheless sold out to become a best-selling novelist. His wife has been diagnosed with a brain tumor. She wants him to read her diaries after her death -- and she wants to read his before she dies. The result is a knot of twisting truth and fiction that neither of them can quite unravel. These are not particularly sympathetic characters -- they're self-involved and sometimes precious -- but they're also urbane and witty. Hutton, an always-convincing actor, gave Michael a rueful, cynical intelligence as well as a seductive vitality.
A strange, disoriented, misogynistic and clearly half-mad, middle-aged man named Kemp shows up at the bedside of his dying auntie, apparently summoned by a letter from her. He then proceeds to take care of her -- that is, prepare meals and rant while she tries to eat them; ask whether she wants to be cremated and if she's thought about donating her organs ("I could do your autopsy if you like. Get to know you a little better"); and suggest that she hurry up and die because he really has better things to do than hang around with her. Who knows what inspired Modern Muse to select this savage, brilliant play by Morris Panych, but they deserve top honors for doing so. In addition, director Billie McBride cast it wonderfully. Kemp was played with lip-smacking relish by Lawrence Hecht, and the almost entirely silent Aunt Grace by a slyly plucky Patty Mintz Figel.
We've seen only sporadic appearances by Caitlin O'Connell at the Denver Center for the past few years, so her return to play Lane, the achievement-obsessed doctor who hires a reluctant maid in The Clean House, was a joy. Beginning as a rigid perfectionist in an icy white suit, she evolved into someone far wilder and woollier as the play progressed. At one point, she was called upon to laugh until her laughter turned to tears. She turned this fairly common dramatic device into a revelation. There's something catlike and mysterious about O'Connell, something intriguing going on beneath the surface. Half the pleasure of watching her comes from trying to figure out what it is.
Sydney Parks's big moment was a twisted hybrid reminiscent of both the balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet and the courtship of Roxane by Cyrano de Bergerac on behalf of his friend Christian. Maybe there was a little Taming of the Shrew in there, too. Parks played Janice, who, at the play's opening, had driven her husband from the house with violent threats. Nonetheless, he wanted her back. When his best friend attempted to court her on his behalf, she hurled the roses he sent to the ground, howling. He appeared over the garden fence, clattering among the garbage cans, and she emerged on the balcony to rage at him. Slowly they began to reminisce about their school days. She calmed down. You glimpsed the loneliness she so desperately wanted to keep hidden. But just as you began to hope these two would become a couple, Janice reclaimed her inner shrew. Parks did full justice to all of this with a fiery, bravura performance.

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