Aspen’s ‘best’ in theater: 2015
This summer at the Aspen Institute’s Ideas Festival, I donned chain mail and picked up a sword for a short, less-than-serious attempt at Shakespearean acting. In the class with Shakespeare scholars Ken and Carol Adelman, and TV director Jay Sandrich, the main thing I learned is that I am not an actor.
But it also underscored my deep respect for people who are actors, and for the directors, designers, writers and tech people who put in the hard work to put on the shows I write about in these pages.
We’re flush with good theater in these parts and this year offered an embarrassment of riches, from Theatre Aspen’s phenomenal expanded season and its inaugural Aspen Theatre Festival, to Thunder River capping its 20th year in Carbondale with a winning production of “Red Herring,” to Todd Hartley’s hilarious “Generations of Tantalus” outside on the Roaring Fork River and Hudson Reed Ensemble’s creepy Halloween run of “The Turn of the Screw.” Aspen Community Theatre wowed once again with its professional-grade production of “Beauty and the Beast” and the talented young cast of Aspen High School’s “Singin’ in the Rain” did the same.
They all deserve an end-of-the-year standing ovation of gratitude, along with these five of my favorites.
Theatre Aspen, June-August
Jon Peterson chewed scenery in the tent, nailing the bad-boy act and bawdy schmaltz of the debauched Kit Kat Club emcee of “Cabaret.”
Performing in numerous states of undress, Peterson brought a pouty-lipped charm and sexual anarchy to the role popularized on Broadway by Alan Cumming. Peterson’s emcee was an increasingly menacing force of nature on stage as the show proceeded to its tragic end, his face makeup growing grotesque, his patter less cute and more ominous, coinciding with the Nazi party’s rise to power in Berlin.
Peterson is the kind of performer who can do anything. This role demanded nothing less. His ghoulish punk ballad take on “I Don’t Care Much” was a high point. Other highlights were Kirsten Wyatt as the trainwreck chanteuse Sally Bowles and Aspenite Nikki Boxer busting out her opera chops on “Married” and the intimate set, which reconfigured the Hurst Theatre’s front row and put theatergoers in the night club.
Thunder River Theatre, February-March
After 20 years of ambitious programming in the Roaring Fork Valley, Thunder River Theatre finally tackled Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” and it proved worth the wait.
The spooky production emphasized the play’s ghost story, opening with the cast emerging in disturbing white masks from a trapdoor.
The company’s consistently great David Pulliam tackled the weighty title role, bringing a magnetic emotional intensity to the soliloquies and an appropriate emotional shape-shifting to how he deals with family, friend and foe throughout.
“Other Desert Cities”
Theatre Aspen, August
Audiences laughed and cried through the summer run of John Robin Baitz’s brilliant “Other Desert Cities,” the combustible, compelling production that marked Theatre Aspen’s first foray into straight drama in several years.
Set mostly on Christmas Eve 2004 in Palm Springs, the play chronicled a tense holiday reunion of the Weith family: the old guard Republican mom and dad, the aunt just out of rehab, the TV producer brother and Brooke, who comes in from New York and drops the bombshell that she’s written a family memoir.
The play and its fantastic ensemble cast mined generational conflict, family dysfunction and the foibles of the idle rich for laughs early on – and cut the tension with biting humor throughout – but grew into a devastating study of familial bonds and loyalty.
“The Other Place”
Aspen Fringe Festival, June
Local theater audiences have come to expect a lot of the Aspen Fringe Festival, as it consistently offers some of the valley’s best-acted, edgiest drama.
The summer staging of Sharr White’s emotional thriller “The Other Place” did not disappoint. Erica Tobolski’s mercurial performance as a biophysicist unwittingly suffering the early stages of dementia packed a wallop, with a sturdy supporting turn by Robert Pescovitz as her husband.
In the hands of veteran theater director Jim O’Connor, “The Other Place” played out like a mystery, with the audience putting together clues as to what is going wrong with Juliana.
White’s sharply written (even, at times, funny) drama was enriched by the festival’s featured readings from several of his other works, showing off the playwright’s range. He’s on a hot streak, with three plays running on Broadway and off-Broadway over the past three years, and a writing gig on Showtime’s award-winning drama “The Affair.” The festival offered the rewarding opportunity for a deep dive into his work.
“Peter and the Starcatcher”
Theater Aspen, July-August
Peter Pan’s origin story got a funny, pun-y, inventively presented and irreverently performed treatment in Theatre Aspen’s “Peter and the Starcatcher.”
Resourcefully staged in the cozy confines of the Hurst Theatre with a simple wood set, the ensemble cast used ropes and ladders and toy boats and a whole lot of imagination to bring the audience onto the high seas and, eventually, to Neverland. As a result, the play became a winning love letter to the power of imagination.
Adapted from Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson’s popular novels, watching the show was like reading a great book as a child — the kind that inspires makeshift costumes and outlandish new plotlines and a bedroom floor of lava. Which, of course, is the best kind.
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