Aspen Times Weekly: Aspen’s Best Theater of 2014

by Andrew Travers
David Ledingham and Nikki Boxer in "Venus in Fur" at the Aspen Fringe Festival.
Courtesy photo |

Aspenites were spoiled with good theater in 2014.

Along with the stand-out shows highlighted below, local theater lovers were given many reasons to rejoice through the summer high season and throughout the year.

In May, Tony Award winners Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater staged a workshop production of their work-in-progress “Alice By Heart” at the Wheeler Opera House. At the Aspen Ideas Festival, legendary theater director Julie Taymor showed a sneak preview of the film version of her hallucinatory adaptation of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and offered an inspiring talk on her process. Longtime local theater stalwart Lee Sullivan gave a bravura final local performance in the Hudson Reed Ensemble’s “Betrayal” (and he killed the “money, money, money” speech in Thunder River’s February production of Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons”). Former “Wicked” star Allison Luff made a memorably warm turn as Jo in the musical adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women” at Theatre Aspen. And a flock of singing nuns hammed it up in Aspen Community Theatre’s “Nunsense.” I also loved Owen O’Farrell’s slimy turn as Donny in Thunder River’s production of David Mamet’s “American Buffalo.”

The absence of Shakespeare in the Park this summer was a disappointment, but the Hudson Reed Ensemble’s free holiday show is a welcome addition to the Aspen theater calendar. Maybe we can get both in 2015?

As the curtain rises on a new year, here’s a look back at five shows that rose to the top in 2014.

‘Venus in Fur’

Aspen Fringe Festival, June

David Ledingham and Nikki Boxer both gave stunning, complex performances in this intense psychosexual fable. By turns steamy and funny — but always thought-provoking — the Aspen Fringe Festival’s “Venus in Fur” was a master stroke.

Ledingham was spot-on as the arrogant, entitled theater director in search of an actress. And Boxer, as Vanda, who appears mysteriously in his office, was extraordinary in a role that called for her to turn on a dime between ditzy actress, fishnet-clad seductress and enraged feminist.

Given its S&M milieu, this is the kind of material that, in lesser hands, could easily be a cringe-worthy mess on stage. But with these performers, and Mike Monroney’s direction, this production of “Venus in Fur” was an unforgettable exploration of gender roles and power dynamics.

It’s no wonder that David Ives’ 2011 Tony-nominated play has quickly gone on to become one of the most-produced in America. Its twisty, multi-layered story, its sexy premise and Ives’ sharp dialogue are like theater catnip, and would make any actor or producer want to try it out. I’m grateful Fringe Fest did.

‘The Cottage’

Theatre Aspen, July-August

This new play by Sandy Rustin was a deliciously over-the-top throwback sex farce with a British accent, in the Noel Coward tradition, filled with a crissing, crossing and double-crossing of love affairs and laughs to keep the audience in its thrall over two acts.

Rustin and her cast in “The Cottage” managed to pull off both high-brow wit and broad-as-it-gets physical comedy – sometimes simultaneously. There were slapsticky fights and chases around a cottage, guns pulled, promises made and broken and occasionally what might pass for genuine affection between characters, along with one long, climactic fart.

The ensemble cast, led by Nancy Anderson as the duplicitous Sylvia Van Kipness, was clearly having a lot of fun on stage, and it was infectious. Here’s hoping that “The Cottage,” which made its regional debut in Aspen, gets a continued life on bigger stages elsewhere and that Theatre Aspen brings us more new work from talented playwrights like Rustin.

‘On Thin Ice’

The Moth, Wheeler Opera House, March

This live performance of the popular storytelling radio program “The Moth” was greeted with a sold-out crowd at the Wheeler Opera House.

It featured five real stories, told by the people who lived them, under a spotlight on an unadorned stage. Yet it was one of the most exhilarating theater experiences in Aspen in recent memory.

The evening, hosted by NPR’s Ophira Eisenberg (who returns this February for the Aspen Laff Festival), offered the audience ample doses of darkness and light. Stories ranged from a young woman’s harrowing journey with her family from war-torn Afghanistan through the U.S. immigration system, to one about working in Antarctica and another about an unpopular kid’s prom night, along with a yarn about living in Japan from Aspen native Petra Hanson.

Each forged a palpable connection with the Wheeler crowd and proved that, despite all of our digital media consumption, sometimes nothing beats just listening to somebody tell a good story.

‘The Lion in Winter’

Thunder River Theatre, December

Few bickering couples are as much fun to watch as King Henry II and Eleanor, the wife he’s imprisoned, in James Goldman’s black comedy classic “The Lion in Winter.”

Lon Winston and Trary Maddalone did the squabbling royal couple justice in Thunder River Theatre’s recent in-the-round production. Maddalone was a joy to behold, hissing and smiling throughout a wry, pitch-perfect performance as the jailed queen who relishes every chance to get under Henry’s skin and scheme with her sons. Her flippant Eleanor paired well with Winston’s Henry. Winston played the king as a put-upon patriarch – heartless, hilarious, and with a movie gangster’s panache.

The couple led a cast that made the royal intrigue of the year 1183 seem fresh and contemporary enough to be taking place right next door in Aspen.

‘The Full Monty’

Theatre Aspen, June-August

The biggest and longest production in Aspen this year, Theatre Aspen’s “The Full Monty” offered a winning mix of heart and humor.

By the time the lovable, laid-off millworkers stripped at the end of this musical comedy, you couldn’t help but cheer, because it was the culmination of a classic underdog story that hit the right emotional notes and tugged the appropriate heartstrings.

The 19-member cast was led by Tally Sessions, who sympathetically played Terry Lukowski, the ringleader who gets his downtrodden buddies on board for a one-night strip show to score some cash.

Broadway veteran Mary Stout, as their salty piano player, delivered some show-stealing one-liners and punch-lines, in a memorably crusty, deadpan performance.

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