Best Of :: Arts & Entertainment
If Curious Theatre Company had only brought us Clybourne Park — Bruce Norris's witty and insightful update of Lorraine Hansberry's famed A Raisin in the Sun — this season, well, dayenu, as we say at Passover: It would have been enough. If artistic director Chip Walton had seized only on Tony Kushner's Homebody/Kabul to introduce to Denver audiences, that might have been enough, too. But instead, in a season that also included Caryl Churchill's strange little brain tease A Number, the (frankly forgettable) On an Average Day, and Alison Moore's clever comedy Collapse, Walton presented another regional premiere: Bill Cain's 9 Circles, a play about a war crime in Iraq that left audiences stunned. Curious is one of those rare theaters where programs are shaped by a unified artistic vision: There's no pandering, no holding a finger to the wind to see what's likely to sell. Which means that over the years, the company has developed the kind of discriminating audience that makes its risk-taking possible.
Readers' Choice: Curious Theatre
We take care of our own. While this notion has always held true in Denver, the sentiment was never driven home more convincingly than when 3 Kings Tavern co-owner Jim Norris was unexpectedly hospitalized after being bitten by a brown recluse spider. Norris spent nearly a week in the hospital, racking up a mountain of bills. But soon after news of his dilemma spread, a number of good friends, including Jerri Thiel and John Baxter, organized a series of benefits for the local music champion, and tons of bands stepped in to lend a hand. Way to go, Denver.
When the property that once held Time Capsule Studios — the iconic recording facility where a number of classic Denver albums were recorded — went into foreclosure and was taken over by the bank last May, Martin Anderson, a real-estate agent charged with overseeing the sale of the building, discovered what he suspected to be master recording reels left behind. Sensing that these tapes might contain irreplaceable recordings — with sentimental value for those who recorded them, if nothing else — he made arrangements for the tapes to be salvaged by Haylar Garcia, whose band Hippie Werewolves had recorded at Time Capsule, and whose Decibel Garden Studios agreed to serve as custodian of the reels at no charge. As a result, classic recordings from the likes of the Fluid and Christie Front Drive were saved.
Wealthy Victor is living the expatriate's dream in 1960s Europe, but he's very, very sad, nonetheless: His mistress Louise has just refused his offer of marriage. So he has come to the elegant cafe he owns in Paris intending to starve himself to death. The staff is horrified. They suggest feeding him an imaginary banquet, plate by luscious plate, in hopes of changing his mind. As Victor in the Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company's production of An Empty Plate in the Cafe de Grand Boeuf, John Arp sampled each imaginary dish judiciously (Arp is actually a trained chef), and while he did, he dictated his obituary to the distressed waiter. This is a character who could easily seem tedious and narcissistic, but Arp played him with such warmth and intelligence that you couldn't help hoping Louise would accept him — and that he'd have a bite to eat.
9 Circles, which had its regional premiere at Curious Theatre Company, is based on a real-life atrocity in Iraq: an incident in which a United States soldier entered a family home, raped and killed the fourteen-year-old daughter, killed both her parents and her six-year-old sister, then attempted to burn her body. Taking us into this man's mind is a serious challenge. As Daniel Reeves, Sean Scrutchins needed to be twitchy and almost blurrily out of focus at first, and then, by turns, difficult, belligerent, humorous, unaware and in a state of deep denial. Scrutchins was all this — and then he took us by the throat for the play's terrifying final scene, shaking us out of our complacency and then setting us back down again, forever changed.
The character of Coalhouse Walker towers over the musical Ragtime, a panoramic take on the history of the early twentieth century based on the E.L. Doctorow novel. We are shown Walker's patient and ultimately victorious courtship of Sarah, the mother of his child; his pride, the insults he endures, and then his violent radicalization. When the actor scheduled to play Walker developed throat problems, understudy Tyrone Robinson took over the role of Walker a short time before Ragtime opened at the Arvada Center for the Arts. Tall and imposing, cocky and vulnerable, he gave full expression to the character's fierce tenderness and ambiguous morality, and his powerful, expressive voice commanded the stage.
We've seen domineering Petruchios, and Petruchios so glossily movie-star sexy that it's easy to understand why their Katherines fall for them. But in the Denver Center Theatre Company's production of The Taming of the Shrew, John G. Preston's Petruchio was sort of rugged-tough and sort of ham-fisted and sort of dopey-dusty all at the same time — and he managed to own the stage. He was so high-spirited that the usually unpleasant scene in which he beat Grumio came across more as masculine horseplay than bullying, and it was fun watching his bemusement at Katherine's ill-tempered sarcasm change slowly to respect, admiration and, ultimately, love.
Rhonda Brown has a terrific warmth and vitality on stage, and these qualities were evident in her portrayal of Linda in the Miners Alley Playhouse production of Fiction, Steven Dietz's tricky Rubik's Cube of a play. Linda, a writer and prickly intellectual, has been diagnosed with a fatal brain tumor and has asked her husband — also a writer — to read her journal after her death. In return, she wants to read his — before her death, naturally. What follows is an entertaining mishmash of truth and deception, reality and falsification — and then it turns out that Linda's diagnosis itself was an "oncological misapprehension." But audiences had no problem navigating this maze of mixed meanings, because Brown led them through it with so much charm and authority.
Lynn Nottage has acknowledged that her brutal and richly textured play, Ruined, owes a debt to Bertolt Brecht's Mother Courage. Like Mother Courage, Mama Nadi profits from violence and war: She's the owner of a brothel. But where Mother Courage worships profit alone, placing it above even her love for her children, Mama Nadi is more nuanced, and fiercely protective of her girls — as long as their well-being doesn't threaten her own. And "fierce" is exactly the right word to describe Kim Staunton's performance in the Denver Center Theatre Company's production of Ruined. She was electrifying. She made Mama Nadi passionate, tough and full of rage, but also capable of tenderness and even — in the midst of abject horror — tiny moments of the purest frivolity.
Okay, we admit it: We fell in love with Maggie Sczekan's Christine in the Boulder's Dinner Theatre production of Phantom. When she was on stage, we were mesmerized. When she wasn't, we waited impatiently for her to return. So many musical-comedy ingenues are annoying: pretty, simpering puppets whose sweet, shy gestures could never come from a real, breathing woman, but Sczekan is a real actress. If her gestures were charming and pretty, they were also sincere; her voice was rich and expressive, with all the range and musicality the score required; and her entire performance showed individuality and spine. Sczekan has star quality, and we'll be surprised if we're able to keep her in Colorado much longer. Here's hoping.
We'd seen Jamie Ann Romero as a charming ingenue and a cute comedienne several times before, but it was never clear that she had the gravitas for a tragic role — until the Colorado Shakespeare Festival's production of Romeo and Juliet. Romero's Juliet was a lovely, playful child who grew before our eyes into a deep-souled woman. It was a tender, touching, radiant and fully realized performance.
Black Book brings urban and street-inspired art to Denver's Art District on Santa Fe in a big, bold way, hosting exhibits that showcase both local and national figures. One month you might see seafaring woodcuts by John Fellows, the next, sculptures and prints by Ravi Zupa; international names like Ottograph, Galo and 2501, who showed together here a year ago, are also a big part of the fluid Black Book mix. And the gallery keeps the art coming, one show after another, sweeping house monthly. Watch carefully: This kind of work isn't going away anytime soon, and neither is Black Book, which deals in affordable, collectible works that reflect the times we live in.