Sunday, March 27, 2011

Further Afield Reviews: "The Field," "Cabaret" and "Ruined"

"Cabaret" at the Arvada Center. Photo courtesy of the Arvada Center.

There was a lot happening in the theater scene this weekend, both in Aurora and farther afield. From touring the Dayton Street theater with the Afterthought Theatre Company members to taking in the Shadow's production of "In Search of Eckstine" at the Denver Civic Theatre,  I had my hands full. Look for stories and reviews about those run-ins later this week.
In the meantime, here's a package of reviews from the Denver metro area over the weekend, including a moment that was downright bittersweet. The Denver Vic's stunning production of John Keane's "The Field" is wrapping up as owners and Aurora residents Wade and Lorraine Wood look to sell the century-old theater. The show proved just how much of a loss the sale will prove to be for the local theater community.
Find the reviews after the jump...

“The Field”
Three and a half stars out of four

It’s unlikely that Wade and Lorraine Wood knew that “The Field” would be their swan song as the owners of the Denver Vic theater when he announced the 2010-11 season.
Earlier this month, the Aurora residents announced that they were selling the theater on Hooker Street, citing mounting financial losses on the business. While it’s a bittersweet achievement, “The Field” is a stunning artistic statement for the departing duo. John Keane’s drama about a land struggle in 1960s provincial Ireland finds sublime direction from Rita Broderick, and benefits from a powerhouse performance from Jim Hunt as “Bull” McCabe, the drama’s hypnotic villain.
When Maggie Butler (Chip Winn Wells), announces she’s selling the field willed to her by her dead husband, a simple question of property rights and ownership balloons into a conflict of Shakespearean proportions. “Bull” McCabe and his son Tadgh (Abraham Willock), immediately claim first rights to the tract, conspiring with auctioneer and bar owner Mick Flanagan (Steve Kramer) to win the bid for 200 pounds without any competition. When Boston investor William Dee (Brian Landis Folkins) shows up and announces he’s ready to outbid the McCabes so he can cover the field with concrete and start a small construction company, the land claim turns violent.
Every piece in the production seems to fit, from the brogues perfected by actors like Cody Robinson, who plays Leamy Flanagan, and Paige Lynn Larson, who plays the matriarch Maimie Flanagan. Both had roles in the Evergreen Theatre Company’s production of “The Cripple of Inishmaan” last year, and their comfort with the regional dialects of Ireland shows in this spot-on recreation of a rural village in County Kerry circa 1965. As Bird O’Donnell, a barfly complicit in the McCabes’ plots, Josh Hartwell also shows his range; when the dustup turns violent, his reluctance to confess to Sergeant Leahy (Eric Ross) and Father Murphy (Tyler Collins) is a highlight of the drama.
Still, the true draw of this show lies in Jim Hunt’s performance as “Bull,” a self-righteous bully whose sense of entitlement comes through in every interaction, every monologue. The drama’s central conflict hinges around this character, and Hunt benefits from a sterling supporting cast and subtle direction to find the role’s real marrow. A small matter of real estate takes on theological and moral implications as “Bull” seeks to procure the land at any cost.
The 76-seat confines of the Vic don’t make the action any less expansive under Broderick’s direction. Scenes in the Flanagan’s bar, in the parish church and in the titular field find full expression in the theater’s small space, and the effect is truly transporting.
With the future of the theater uncertain, “The Field” may tragically prove to be one of the last full-scale productions at the site for the foreseeable future. It’s all the more saddening considering the theater’s history, which stretches back a century. If the Woods were to choose any show to offer as an epilogue, however, “The Field” makes a bold and haunting statement.

“The Field”
Until April 2
The Denver Victorian Playhouse
4201 Hooker St., Denver
For more information, call 303-433-4343 or log on to
Tickets start at $19

Three out of four stars

It’s clear from the outset of the Arvada Center’s production of “Cabaret” that the good times can’t last.
The musical, set in the bohemian world of Berlin’s cabaret scene in 1931, is rooted in excess and abandon. The central love story between burlesque star Sally Bowles (Kendal Hartse) and the aspiring American writer Clifford Bradshaw (Brett Aune) unfolds over a backdrop of promiscuity and indulgence; a constant celebration plays out in the background as the two characters meet and their passion blossoms.
Of course, the sense of impending doom has a lot to do with the setting. The wild heirs of  jazz age abandon romp and rage as the Nazi party gets its first holds on the levers of power in pre-World War 2 Berlin. With the specters of horrors to come as the musical’s constant undertone, the celebrations seem doomed from the start.
Director Christy Montour-Larson does a good job of balancing the dual senses of abandon and foreboding. Hartse and Aune’s strong lead performances find complements in a compelling supporting cast and a strong ensemble. As the musical’s frenzied, fatalistic emcee, Leo Ash Evens helps set a harried tone for the piece. Denver theater veteran Billie McBride offers a dramatic anchor as Fraulein Schneider, a boarding house owner whose ill-timed engagement to the Jewish fruit vendor Herr Schultz (Wayne Kennedy) hints at the impending toll of the Nazi regime early on in the piece.
Musical director David Dyer leads an ensemble featuring familiar faces for Aurora theatergoers — Ben Dicke and Piper Lindsay Arpan come to the musical fresh from a stint in “The Wedding Singer” at the Aurora Fox. The ensemble does justice to John Kandar and Fred Ebb’s score, music that’s full of vintage jazz cues and sultry horn work. Some vocal performances fall a bit flat in the end, however. Brian Mallgrave’s set design is at its best during the club scenes, but during montages set in the boarding house and Bradshaw’s cramped apartment, the space seems a bit confined. Both occasional shortcomings end up breaking the musical’s all-important feeling of ambience.
Still, the vocal strength of players like Evens and Hartse lend the piece the constant feel of a European cabaret, a vintage burlesque venue where the rules of polite society evaporate. The real achievement of the production lies in its universality — for all the importance historical context plays in this piece, this staging hints at a deeper truth. Good times, however raucous and rowdy, can’t last forever.

Until April 17
Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities
6901 Wadsworth Blvd., Arvada
For more information, call 720-898-7201 or log on to
Tickets start at $49

Three and a half out of four stars

The true tragedy and toll of war can’t be conveyed through news bites and coverage on cable television.
In her Pulitzer Prize-winning drama “Ruined,” playwright Lynn Nottage seeks to communicate the human cost of the Second Congo War, the bloody conflict that ravaged the Democratic Republic of Congo starting in 1998 and grew into the largest war in modern African history. The Denver Center Theatre Company’s production of the piece keeps intact all of the pathos, power and humanity of the Nottage’s piece, offering harrowing insights on a tragedy that unfolded a world away.
Nottage frames the tragedy of the Second Congo War with its human casualties. In a Congo bar and brothel run by Mama Nadi (Kim Staunton), women whose lives have been upturned by violence find refuge. Their bodies abused by soldiers of all stripes, their families murdered, their futures precarious, the girls at Mama Nadi’s find a twisted sort of safety in her employ. When Sophie (Tallia Brinson) arrives seeking refuge, she offers a particularly horrific story. She’s been “ruined,” sexually abused so intensely at the hands of marauding soldiers that she’s beyond redemption.
It’s an eerie label, a designation that hints at the casualties wrought by the conflict. Still, Nottage manages to balance the weight of the atmosphere and ambience with moments of humor and joy. As Sophie and her fellow refugee Salima (Daphne Gaines) become acclimated at Mama Nadi’s place, we glimpse a community of survivors, a group who find solace for incomprehensible horrors in simple joys like music and friendship. Nottage deftly navigates weighty social commentary and intimate character portraits; director Secret Scott finds a compelling balance between the tragic and the human.
Staunton is particularly powerful in her role as Mama Nadi — her character welcomes soldiers from both sides of the conflict at her bar. She’s forced to practice pragmatic politics, sympathizing and commiserating with the customer in front of her. Her shrewd business sense is no match for the depth of the violence swirling around her, and the character’s own battle scars are eventually revealed. It’s a demanding role, one that Staunton handles eloquently.
While Brinson and Gaines offer their own powerful moments, some of Nottage’s meaning falls short with shortcomings of craft. A small group of ensemble actors play soldiers from both sides of the Second Congo War; the constant troupe of actors going back and forth in different outfits muddle the setting and make the situation unclear at moments.
The production still manages to capture the harrowing feel of the conflict. The bloodshed and casualties find full expression not in graphic images and embedded reporters, but instead in human stories. The characters’ struggles are more telling than any breaking news delivered by a reporter in the studio.

Until April 30
Ricketson Theatre
Denver Center for the Performing Arts
1101 13th St., Denver
For more information, call 303-893-4100 or log on to
Tickets start at $35

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