Review: Theatre Aspen’s inaugural Solo Flights offered front row seats to new play development
Special to The Aspen Times
Theatre Aspen brought together artists from across the country to test the wings of their new plays at the inaugural Solo Flights festival of one-person shows. Three of the four featured pieces, running Sept. 18 to 21, were world premieres — never seen onstage prior to their debuts at Hurst Theatre.
Producing director Jed Bernstein noted that these Solo Flights marked the official launch of the first fall season for Theatre Aspen. Over four days, four artistic teams mounted staged readings of their new creations to see and hear their nascent works in front of a live audience, a crucial step in the development of new plays.
“A lot of theaters offer one-time readings, but the chance to see multiple performances of a new work is a rare opportunity for artists,” said Jenny Giering, who co-created the one-woman musical “What We Leave Behind” with husband Sean Barry.
“We need to feel engagement to know how people are responding to subtle differences in writing and performance choices,” Barry added.
For audiences, Solo Flights provided an exciting opportunity to see new plays in the developmental stage and engage with accomplished theater artists via creative discussions and moderated panels. These interactive sessions provided attendees with additional access to the behind-the-scenes process, where they could learn about each show’s history and share in the discoveries of every performance.
The festival opened with the world premiere of “Coach,” written by veteran TV and film writer John Wilder and directed by the adept Joe Calarco. The play, Wilder’s first, featured award-winning actor Beau Bridges in an intimate portrait of UCLA basketball coach John Wooden, who led the Bruins to a record 10 championship wins. The carefully researched, autobiographical story provides a glimpse into the character of a man who valued good, old-fashioned virtue and cherished the love of his life, his wife Nell, until his dying day.
Thursday through Saturday delivered a rotation of shows covering a variety of themes. “When It’s You,” written by Courtney Baron, performed by Joy Nash, and directed by Kent Nicholson, drew the audience into the role of confidante for a young woman confused and tormented by her proximity to a terrible crime. Wise-cracking, warm-hearted Ginnifer could be anyone who grew up in a tight-knit community, but she’s not. She’s someone whose high school boyfriend became a mass shooter. “When It’s You” is a timely play that dares to suggest that any one of us might, overnight, find ourselves closer to gun violence than we care to imagine.
For those who can’t resist an atmospheric thriller, Jeffrey Hatcher delivered a taut, character-driven, period drama adapted from the Swedish novel “Dr. Glas.” Part murder mystery, part existential poem, “Dr. Glas” was directed with sensitive precision by Lisa Peterson and starred Obie award-winning Daniel Gerroll as a self-controlled, quick-witted and highly respected physician tormented by a secret longing. Filled with piercing observations about loneliness, isolation and the deep-seated need for human connection, “Dr. Glas” explores the moral dilemma of a man sworn to “first do no harm” who is forced to confront the depths of his own suffering as he strives to help a beautiful young patient with an indelicate problem.
The only musical of the festival, “What We Leave Behind,” written by the husband-and-wife team of Giering and Barry, took the audience on an odyssey through the life-changing impact of chronic illness. Stricken with a mystery disease that emerges on the heels of breast cancer surgery, free-spirited writer, performer, singer and songwriter Jenny asks herself if she will ever feel whole again. Smartly directed by Tracy Brigden, and performed by the astonishing Kate Baldwin, “What We Leave Behind” juxtaposes moments of euphoria (when life feels as if it’s opening up) with moments of anguish (when it seems to be shutting down), and ultimately suggests that both experiences can co-exist in the timeless and mysterious process of making art.
“Writing a play is an act of courage,” Bernstein proclaimed on opening night. At this first Solo Flights, that courage was on display in rare form. Each production’s team enjoyed only a brief (and therefore, intense) rehearsal period, which began just a few days prior to opening night.
“All plays, from ‘Wicked’ to ‘Death of a Salesman,’ have to start somewhere,” Bernstein said in his pre-show remarks. Last week, that somewhere was Theatre Aspen.
Solo Flights closed with a landing party Saturday evening, where attendees gathered to celebrate the achievements of the fearless writers, directors, performers, producers, sponsors, stage managers, technical designers and audiences who help bring new theater to life.
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