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February 26th, 2009 By Rick Pender | Arts | Posted In: Theater, Theater

Mile-High Plays

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I’ve often written in CityBeat about the Humana Festival of New American Plays that happens annually at Actors Theatre of Louisville. I look forward to this annual collection of new works, regarded by many as the premier opportunity in the to see fully staged works by contemporary playwrights. (This year is the Humana Festival’s 33rd iteration, and it opens March 1.)

But Actors Theatre isn't the only place for new work in the United States. I recently spent time at the Colorado New Play Summit, presented in its fourth year by the Denver Center Theatre Company (DCTC), which takes a different approach.

DCTC commissions scripts by up-and-coming writers and gives them readings — simply actors with scripts, sometimes seated, sometimes standing at music stands. There are no costumes or sets, so audiences have to use their imaginations. Based on audience and artistic reaction, DCTC then picks one or two of the scripts for full production during an upcoming season.

In theater spaces throughout the Denver Center, a performing arts facility about twice the size of the Aronoff Center, I saw readings Feb. 12-14 of three of the four commissioned plays, a new adaptation of Meredith Willson’s 1960 musical The Unsinkable Molly Brown and world-premiere productions of two scripts that were read at the 2007 summit.

The two productions were very satisfying theater, works I feel certain will show up in theaters across the U.S. Inana by Michele Lowe is about an Iraqi museum curator’s efforts to save an ancient and precious statue before the American invasion of Baghdad in 2003. This is the kind of show we see regularly at the Cincinnati Playhouse’s Shelterhouse stage — one set (a London hotel room where the curator has arrived with his new bride and a mysterious suitcase) but potential for imaginative expansion of recalled moments as the story is told. (Photo at top is of Piter Marek, left, and Mahira Kakkar in Inana.)

I met Lowe over dinner one evening; she told me that her next script, Musica Victoria, will receive its world premiere at the Playhouse next season, although that information hasn't yet been released by the Playhouse. She is the author of The Smell of the Kill, a dark comedy that the Playhouse presented in 2003; another of her plays, String of Pearls, offering four actresses playing 27 women in 90 minutes, was staged by Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati in 2006.

Dusty and the Big Bad World by Cusi Cram is a thoughtful comedy about bigotry and attempted censorship on a public television show for kids. It’s a very even-handed treatment of the subject — distilled in a flap over a children’s show that has planned a segment about a girl whose parents are two gay men — with views from conservative to liberal all being aired amusingly and provocatively. It’s very much the kind of show that I can imagine Ensemble Theatre offering in an upcoming season.

It had a great cast, including Jeanine Serrales (photo below) as an administrative assistant to a conservative cabinet secretary in Washington, D.C. She performed at the Cincinnati Playhouse in 2005 in John Yearley’s Leap, a world premiere in the Shelterhouse Theatre.

Jeanine_Serralles_as_Karen_in_the_Denver_Center_Theatre_Company_world_premiere_production_of_Dusty_and_the_Big_Bad_World_by_Cusi_Cram._Photo_by_Terry_Shapiro_.jpg

Using local professional actors and other performers currently onstage in the productions of Inana and Dusty (plus a DCTC mainstage version of Shakespeare’s Richard III), four readings were presented:

Eventide by Cleveland playwright Eric Schmiedl, based on the novel by Kent Haruf. The script is a companion piece to a previous adaptation of another Haruf novel, Plainsong, which DCTC offered in a successful production a year ago. It’s about contemporary ranchers and lives in a small Colorado town. Several of the actors from the staging of Plainsong were involved in the reading of Eventide, so they were performing roles they’ve already lived in, making this the most effective of the readings.

When Tang Met Laika by Rogelio Martinez is about interactions between Russian cosmonauts and American astronauts in the 1990s aboard the International Space Station.

Take Me to the River by Constance Congdon uses a family drama to explore issues around water rights in Colorado that are also claimed by Kansas and Nebraska. The sprawling work taught me some things about America’s consumption of water, a topic that will surely move beyond regional concern in the future.

Flooded by Julie Marie Myatt is a fanciful piece about a TV meteorologist who becomes an oracle, predicting natural disasters around the world. (I didn't have the opportunity to see this one.)

Finally, I had the singular pleasure of watching the first step in the rebirth of a musical by Meredith Willson, best known for The Music Man. The Unsinkable Molly Brown is the story of an irrepressible woman from Missouri who takes Colorado like a storm in the early 20th century, first in a silver mining town and then in Denver; she also survives the sinking of the Titanic. The “reading” featured a cast of 18; no real scenery, but the actors did move around the stage (not dancing, however, despite the staging by renowned choreographer, director and two-time Tony Award-winner Kathleen Marshall.)

Willson’s show has been revised with additional songs he wrote for other purposes, and the book has been rewritten by Dick Scanlon, who wrote the book for the Tony Award-winning Thoroughly Modern Millie in 2002. The leading role of Molly was filled by Kerry O’Malley (recently on Broadway in Irving Berlin’s White Christmas); Mark Kudisch (who was in Scanlon’s Thoroughly Modern Millie and is scheduled to open soon in the Broadway premiere of 9 to 5) played her husband J.J. Brown. Adding special magic to the performance, Willson’s widow, Ruth, was in the audience.

I’m so glad to have discovered the Colorado New Play Summit. I’m sure I’ll return for glimpses of plays and musicals that will certainly be showing up on stages across the country in the future.

 
 
 
 
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