The Denver Center Theatre Company solidified its growing place as a major player in the development of new works for the American theater with last weekend’s well-received 7th annual Colorado New Play Summit, which featured works by Lisa Loomer, Samuel D. Hunter, Richard Dresser, Michael Mitnick and Lauren Feldman. It’s a rep that’s as much on the rise for who came to this year’s Summit as for what they saw on the Denver Center’s four stages.
The American Theatre Critics Association held its winter gathering in conjunction with the confab, which drew reps from Sundance, the Public Theatre, Page 73 and many other first-time visiting companies.
Reactions were strongest for two promising coming attractions, something old and something very new: The Jane Austen musical Sense & Sensibility, directed by Marcia Milgrom Dodge, whose Ragtime revival earned seven Tony Awards; and Michael Mitnick’s Ed Downloaded, which was commissioned for the specific purpose of incorporating new forms of multimedia.
The Denver Center’s unique festival model offers attendees five staged readings of works still in development, most chosen from among the more than 20 playwrights working under active commission with the Denver Center at any given time. Visitors also took in two fully staged new plays that began as readings from the 2011 Summit: Samuel D. Hunter’s The Whale, which will be produced next at New York’s Playwrights’ Horizons, and Loomer’s Two Things You Don’t Talk About at Dinner.
Last year, three of the Summit’s five readings graduated onto the Denver Center Theatre Company’s full 2011-12 season. The third is Lloyd Suh’s The Great Wall Story, which opens this spring.
It’s that ratio of turning readings into productions that sets the Colorado New Play Summit apart, said Mitnick, whose play imagines what might happen in a near-future world where it’s possible to download a dying person’s memories for posterity.
“It’s rare,” Mitnick said, “and as a playwright based in New York, it’s heartening. Not only when I sit down to write a play, thinking there might be a home for it someday, but because I know that they are going to do their best to realize the play to the best that it can ever be. I use the Denver Center as an example to theaters in New York, because there isn’t anything like it.”
Added Michael Walkup, associate director of New York’s Page 73: “There are very few theaters that are this committed to the production of new work. If I am thinking as a playwright, I can’t imagine a better business model.”
The media is asked not to critically evaluate any of the staged readings, as they are still works in progress. Of the fully staged works, Hunter’s The Whale was warmly received as a landmark approach to a contemporary family drama: It concerns a middle-aged man named Charlie (Tom Alan Robbins) who has allowed himself to grow morbidly obese – we’re talking 600 pounds – in response to his life partner’s death. With only a few days to live, Charlie is determined to connect with the bratty daughter (Nicole Rodenburg) he hasn’t seen in the 15 years since he left her mother to be with a man. Now he’s being cared for by a nurse (Angela Reed) who is the sister of his late partner, and a cheerful young door-to-door Mormon Elder with a secret of his own (Cory Michael Smith). Here’s The Denver Post review.
Loomer’s Two Things You Don’t Talk About Dinner, set at an L.A. Passover Seder, allows for an increasingly rare American occurrence: A discussion of politics and religion among those with vastly different beliefs. The play has polarized critics and audiences, with occasional random outbursts from theatergoers. Here’s the Westword review.
In addition to Dodge, the Summit drew star quality in the form of Sam Buntrock and Pam McKinnon. Buntrock, who directed Ed Downloaded, directed the first West End revival of the musical Sunday in the Park with George, which integrated animation and video projections in unprecedented ways. McKinnon, who directed Hand of God, opens Clybourne Park on Broadway on April 19. Then there was Catherine E. Coulson, the Log Lady from Twin Peaks, playing the role of an obliviously offensive Christian evangelist in Two Things.
“It’s exciting to have creative teams that are another step up in terms of what they are bringing to the table here,” Denver Center Theatre Company artistic director Kent Thompson. It’s a heady experience to have Sam Buntrock and Marcia Milgrom Dodge and Pam McKinnon here. I think the message people are taking away from this is that there are a lot of exciting projects and creative teams out here in Denver.”
That’s a message Page 73‘s Walkup, a first-time Summit visitor, said is spreading.
“We have a modest travel budget,” he said. “We asked all our peers in the field what festivals we should be attending, and this one was mentioned by almost all of them. That’s how we decided to come. It’s peer pressure … in the best sense.”
A quick rundown of the staged readings
Sense & Sensibility the Musical
Written by Jeffrey Haddow (based on the Jane Austen novel); music by Neal Hampton
This is a presumed lock for full production on the Denver Center Theatre Company’s 2012-13 season. Each year a crossover offering is included on both the resident theater company’s subscription season, and on the sister Denver Center Attractions’ Broadway touring package. This new take on the sisters Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, and their inability to keep love at bay despite desperate circumstances, drew standing ovations from festivalgoers.
By Michael Mitnick; videography by Charlie I. Miller
Equal parts live action and feature film, this intriguing new comic drama is based “on an eventual true story.” It centers on a dying twentysomething young man who is allowed to preserve his 10 favorite memories in digital form. After Ed’s death, his lover is crushed to discover that he chose times spent with another woman. So she sets out to manipulate the data and insinuate herself into his everlasting cyber-memories. This commission showcased the Denver Center’s new “Off-Center” program, an ongoing alternative programming series that embraces new storytelling forms for younger adult audiences.
By Lisa Loomer
The very busy Loomer takes a dark turn here with this difficult tale of three “cast-out” homeless teens living in the streets, parks and under freeway underpasses. Based on actual interviews, it’s an unsparing look at a growing American problem.
Grace, or the Art of Climbing
By Lauren Feldman
This tale, equal parts poetic narrative and interactive play, follows a young woman’s unlikely plunge into the world of rock climbing, which serves as a metaphor for the doubt, depression and demons that control her life.
Hand of God
By Richard Dresser
Reality TV is parodied in this comedy about a hot-shot young television producer and his sad sack of an assistant, who between them have only a few days to come up with the perfect pitch for the next great televised opportunity for Americans to demean themselves. Their jobs are on the line, but not all is what it seems.