Review: Josh Hartwell's Queen of Conspiracy Rules at Miners Alley

Rachel D. Graham
Abby Apple Boes as Mae Brussell and Damon Guerrasio as Frank Zappa.
Miners Alley artistic director Len Matheo suffered two major setbacks before this past weekend's opening of Queen of Conspiracy, a new play by Colorado playwright Josh Hartwell. Three days earlier, Matheo learned he had to replace Erica Sarzin-Borillo, slated to play the very important role of Olivia, who'd injured herself at home moving a heavy piece of statuary.

“This has been heartbreaking,” Sarzin-Borillo told Westword, adding profound good wishes for the show: “A lot of hard work and love went into birthing it.” Fortunately, Heather Lacy was able to step into the part, learning the lines and blocking at the very last minute.

And then opening night had to be canceled an hour before curtain because of a plumbing problem that rendered all of the restrooms in the building unusable and created an overwhelming stench. “If we believed in conspiracy theories, I’d say there was a whopper,” Matheo said.

By the next evening, though, the plumbing was fixed, the stench was gone and the world premiere of Queen of Conspiracy opened to a full and enthusiastic house.

Queen of Conspiracy was inspired by the work of real-life investigator Mae Brussell, an odd mix of brilliant and indefatigable researcher, thoughtful analyst and obsessive crank. The action takes place within two intersecting time frames. As the play opens, we’re in the 1960s and Brussell is at her desk. In life she was a quiet Beverly Hills housewife, mother of five children and a friend to Henry Miller, Frank Zappa, John Lennon and Yoko Ono, among other celebrities. She studied fascism and was particularly interested in the assassination of John F. Kennedy, minutely analyzing the Warren Commission Report over several years and finding discrepancies and contradictions; then came the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., as well as the Watergate tapes. All of this got dissected in articles and on her radio shows, which she taped and distributed to the hundreds of followers she called her Brussell Sprouts. While Brussell sometimes made uncannily accurate predictions, she also missed many; for instance, she believed that Charles Manson was not the real killer, but a scapegoat.

A parallel plot line takes place in the present, when Olivia, a disciple of Brussell's, arrives at the home of Rachel, the daughter she left long ago to pursue her obsession. Rachel and her partner, Carson, are not quite sure how they feel about this intrusion, and even now, as the two women finally reconnect, Olivia is more interested in her own endlessly unfolding conspiracy theories than in any real closeness with her daughter. Pontificating, sloshing down drinks, infuriatingly detached, Lacy gives a stunning performance in the role.

Chloe McLeod’s Rachel is slender and vulnerable, but she also has her mother’s toughness. There’s a beautifully acted and deeply touching moment when she expresses on tape the sense of lifelong loss caused by Olivia’s absence. Sinjin Jones is a quietly thoughtful figure as Carson, and Abby Apple Boes plays a convincing Mae Brussell. It will be some time before I forget Damon Guerrasio’s impersonation of Frank Zappa and his explanation of how to create a song mashup on a computer — a device Brussell has never seen before, and of which she’s rightly suspicious. And then there’s William Hahn as Henry Miller, reciting a scatalogical passage from Tropic of Cancer. Later, Hahn takes on the role of a slow-speaking, gum-chewing, weirdly manipulative professor, performing with perfect comic timing and absolute authority.

But even this level of acting wouldn’t work as well without a strong script. Hartwell has been a player on the local theater scene for several years. He’s a fine actor himself, and has also provided insightful direction to plays as different as the hilariously funny and boundary-pushing Bad Jews at the now-defunct Edge Theater and the subtly beautiful Ghost Writer for the Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company. His own plays include the blood-spattering Resolutions, also at Edge, and a light and funny revision of A Christmas Carol for Miners Alley. Queen of Conspiracy shows a writer at the top of his form: The dialogue is witty and smart, and the action jibes with the fuzz and mystery surrounding a conspiracist’s world, with the tone veering from seriousness to threat to utter absurdity. The audience is sometimes unsure whether a character’s musings are delusional or express some strange but incontrovertible reality.

Queen of Conspiracy is a perfect work for these troubled times, when musings about a deep state can be found on both the right and the left, and the president has seized the Orwellian idea of fake news — usually applied to governmental coverups, CIA operations and the lies used to justify wars — and twisted it to label any information that threatens him and his government. Consultant Kellyane Conway speaks of “alternative facts,” and Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s attorney, states emphatically that “Truth isn’t truth.” In this miasma of avoidance, falsehood and prevarication, Mae Brussell is perhaps needed more than ever.

Queen of Conspiracy, presented by Miners Alley Playhouse through June 23, 1224 Washington Avenue, Golden, 303-935-3044,