Aspen Fringe Festival: High-risk theater |

Aspen Fringe Festival: High-risk theater

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen Times Weekly
Aspen, CO Colorado
Stewart Oksenhorn/Aspen Times WeeklyLouis Lotorto, left, and David Ledingham star in the comedy "Love Song," showing Thursday through Saturday, June 3-5, at the Aspen Fringe Festival.

ASPEN – In a recent conversation about new plays, the life of itinerant theater pros and the Aspen Fringe Festival, Louis Lotorto refers to “the things we crazy gypsy road actors will do.” Lotorto is being purposefully colorful and dramatic; that is, after all, his profession. But it is hardly an exaggeration when it comes to what it often takes to bring a production to the stage, and what, in fact, has been involved in pulling together the second annual Aspen Fringe.

To wit: Two weeks ago, the cast and directors in the Fringe Festival’s production of “Love Song” met for the first time, although calling it a meeting requires some explanation. The seven participants gathered in front of computer screens in locations from Los Angeles to South Carolina to Aspen, and through video conference software called ooVoo conducted their initial group reading of the play. Following the read-through, director Jim O’Connor conducted a scene-by-scene breakdown.

That would be the high-tech version of the gypsy actor existence, but the old-school model has also been much in evidence in the lead-up to the festival. O’Connor and Lotorto, the lead actor in “Love Song,” arrived on a Thursday evening in Aspen, a place neither had been before. That night they met, for the first time, Fringe Festival producer and “Love Song” cast member David Ledingham. The next day rehearsals began at a borrowed house in Old Snowmass, though one of the stars, Hillary Ward, was still in Los Angeles, fulfilling other obligations. Ward and Lotorto had planned to run their scenes together back in L.A., but their schedules made that impossible.

Though O’Connor and Lotorto had a relatively relaxed timetable, arriving in Aspen two weeks before opening night, both are familiar with hustling around to put on a show. O’Connor, who lives in South Carolina and works regularly at the Utah Shakespeare Festival, spent a year recently in Malaysia, directing a version of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” – performed in Malay, a language O’Connor does not speak – at the National Theater in Kuala Lumpur. Lotorto resides, nominally, in Los Angeles. But the one-liner about where he lives – out of a suitcase – is closer to the truth, as he travels the Interstate 5 corridor, from Southern California to Washington state, taking role after role in regional theater. His most recent gig required a trip to the opposite coast: five months at the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, D.C., appearing in “Richard II” and “Henry V.”

Given the hasty and scattered nature of the preparations, it was understandable that, when asked what “Love Song” was about, the three participants being interviewed all needed a moment – as if they were deciding, on the spot, what was the essence of John Kolvenbach’s play. Lotorto explains that the story centers around his character, Bean, “who’s a little different from everyone else. If I had to diagnose him, I’d say he’s got Asperger’s syndrome, where people retreat into their own world, isolate themselves.”

Bean, Lotorto continued, has a married sister, Joan, whose relationship has lost its luster. After a burglary of his apartment, Bean becomes the catalyst for others, including Joan, to change for the better.

“He blossoms into this new person, a reborn human,” Lotorto said. “And he becomes this vehicle for transformation for everyone around him.”

“It’s about a character embracing, rather than retreating, from life,” O’Connor added.

O’Connor said that he’s not only comfortable with the fact that he’s still grasping for the play’s meaning with a week to go before performances; he prefers to work that way. Earlier in life, O’Connor, whose voice combines a gruff sound and an amiable spirit, had been a painter, and he compares theater to visual arts. In the early stages of making a painting, the canvas is full of potential, possibility and life. But as the colors and shapes solidify, the magical aspect of artistic creation wanes. The Aspen Fringe Festival job – working with people he’s never met, having his cast arrive bit by bit, having less than two weeks to rehearse – ensures that the ritual of performance doesn’t get too separated from the act of creation.

“It’s kind of high-risk behavior,” O’Connor said. “It’s titillating. And I don’t mind getting on the high wire.”

That attitude seems a perfect match for the Aspen Fringe. The event is presented by Pegasus Repertory Theatre, a company founded 15 years ago by Ledingham, who had grown up in Aspen, and his longtime theater buddy, Don McKay. Pegasus put on a variety of events (staged plays, a concert-theater work, the movie “Hitler, Stalin and Walter O’Malley”) in a variety of places (New York, L.A., Aspen), and the emphasis has always been on work that is new and challenging. Old standards were off the table, and polishing the work to a gleaming shine took a backseat to freshness and provocation. Among the plays presented at the inaugural Aspen Fringe last year was the penetrating “I Have Before Me a Remarkable Document Given to Me By a Young Lady from Rwanda,” about a woman who seeks to write about the genocide she witnessed in Africa.

“There’s something exciting about new plays,” Ledingham said. “They may not be fully realized yet, but there’s this excitement and hope that you’ll find the right formula of casting and direction to make this piece sing and soar.”

Taking account of his surroundings, O’Connor added, “It’s finding a new hill to ski on. It doesn’t have any tracks yet. You may make it down, or you may fall and break your ass.”

Ledingham and his crew are aiming to make safe and satisfying landings with three works at the Aspen Fringe. Apart from “Love Song,” which has fully staged productions Thursday through Saturday, June 3-5, there were also staged readings this past week of “Goldfish,” Kolvenbach’s romantic comedy about a young couple grappling with the advice laid on them by their parents; and “Shining City,” an Irish tale of ghosts, religion and guilt.

“Love Song” has already been brought to life. After being premiered by Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Co. in 2006, a production in London earned a nomination for the Olivier Award, crowning Kolvenbach as a rising playwright.

Lotorto could hear the potential in Kolvenbach’s writing the first time he encountered “Love Song.” At that first virtual reading, despite the cast being separated by thousands of miles, despite the spotty sound over the Internet, he was sold.

“The play still rang through,” he said. “It was still moving to hear it. His dialogue sings.”