Aspen Fringe Fest to premiere Sharr White’s ‘Stupid Kid’

Andrew Travers
The Aspen Times
The Aspen Fringe Festival cast of "Stupid Kid" in rehearsal at the Black Box Theatre.
Courtesy photo/Michael Alvarez |

Schedule of Performances

Friday: Soulskin Dance, “A Pop Culture Journey” at Aspen District Theatre, 7:30 p.m.

Saturday and Sunday: “Stupid Kid” at Black Box Theatre, 7:30 p.m.

Monday: “Threads” at Black Box Theatre, 7:30 p.m.

A play doesn’t exist until it’s on a stage, in front of an audience, with its characters transformed from words on a page into living, breathing humans.

The Aspen Fringe Festival, for the first time in its eight-year history, is bringing a new play into existence this weekend. Sharr White’s “Stupid Kid” will premiere at the festival on Saturday night.

“To me, that’s almost the only point in doing theater,” Maurice LaMee, who is directing the production, said before a recent rehearsal. “I love doing a new play.”

As recently as last weekend, LaMee and his cast were receiving rewrites and tweaks from White, in what they described as a fruitful artistic exchange. The Fringe Fest cast has had a hand in shaping what the play will be — bouncing ideas back and forth with White, figuring out what works and what doesn’t in rehearsals over the past month. And when the play goes into print for future productions, the work they’ve been doing in the Black Box Theatre will have helped craft it.

“You have some say in it,” said Denver’s Brian Kusic, who plays the titular kid in the play. “It’s not like Shakespeare. We have the conversation with the writer, so you can just shoot an idea to him and see what he thinks.” “Stupid Kid” is a character-driven dark comedy about what happens when 28-year-old Chick comes home to his parents home in the eastern plains of Colorado, after 14 years in prison — released “486 years too early” when DNA evidence exonerates him. Following Chick’s high-profile conviction, his parents have been shunned by the town, gone broke and, in his absence, fallen under the spell of the influential and politically connected Uncle Mike. Fringe Fest founder David Ledingham plays Chick’s pill-popping father and Trary Madalone plays the mother who doesn’t want the boy in her house. The parents are so wary of Chick that they pat him down as he arrives in the first scene.

Commissioned by Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago, the play has had readings there and at the New School in New York, as well as at last year’s Aspen Fringe Festival.

The first act was played like broad comedy last June during the reading here — a white trash farce. It’s been toned down a bit since then, as the Fringe players found a more nuanced tone. LaMee compared it to Sam Sheppard’s “True West” and the work of Martin McDonagh.

“There’s a little bit of a trick being played on the audience,” he explained. “It starts out a little broadly and we make a decision about who these people are early on in the play only to find that what’s going on with them is actually more complicated.”

White has had a meteoric recent run in the theater world, including three plays produced on Broadway and Off-Broadway over the past four years. He also writes for the award-winning Showtime drama “The Affair.” This weekend marks his second year in a row as the Fringe Fest’s playwright-in-residence (along with readings of works-in-progress, the festival last year produced White’s Alzheimer’s drama “The Other Place”).

“Stupid Kid” is as current as a play gets. As White’s been writing and refining it, he’s been responding to our cultural moment of economic inequality and mass incarceration and fear-driven politics (Ledingham calls Uncle Mike a “very Donald Trump-esque character”) but with well-placed laughs throughout.

“It’s really a reflection of our time — right now, this instant,” LaMee said. “There is enormous value in that aspect of it.”

Kusic compared some aspects of the criminal justice side of the story to the Netflix documentary series “Making a Murderer.”

LaMee, who is leaving the post as executive director of the literary nonprofit Aspen Words that he’s held since 2013, has a busy early summer of theater on his hands. Along with directing “Stupid Kid” at the Fringe Festival, he’s helming Theatre Aspen’s production of “Buyer & Cellar,” which opens July 9. Formerly the executive and artistic director of the acclaimed Creede Repertory Theatre, LaMee takes pride in the fact that “Stupid Kid” is a Colorado story and that his seven-actor cast is made up of Colorado natives and transplants.

“I like that it’s set in Colorado,” he said. “I feel we ought to tell our own stories and reflect those back to each other.”

“Pop” and “Threads”

Over the past six years, Fringe dance program director Adrianna Thompson has brought a visiting dance company to town for the festival. This year, for the first time, the choreographer is showcasing her own company: the San Francisco-based Soulskin Dance.

Soulskin will be performing Thompson’s “A Pop Culture Journey,” in which a DJ spins tracks from the likes of Aretha Franklin, Johnny Cash and Iggy Pop as Soulskin’s dancers perform alongside multimedia projections. The piece ends with a bit of (optional) audience participation, as the stage opens up into a dance party.

Thompson’s company is returning to town next month for a performance art piece commissioned by the Aspen Art Museum, in response to the museum’s Alan Shields retrospective. On July 7 the company is scheduled to give a free performance of the new work at the museum.

The Fringe Festival will close Monday with a multi-disciplinary performance by former Dance Theatre of Harlem member Anjali Austin. Titled “Threads,” her piece incorporates dance, song and spoken word in an exploration of African-American and Native American experiences and the symbolic power of quilts.

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