Aspen Fringe Festival to debut

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen Times Weekly
Stewart Oksenhorn/Aspen Times WeeklyDan Bosko, left, and David Ledingham are featured in the comedy "Almost, Maine," being presented this week at the inaugural Aspen Fringe Festival, at the Aspen High School Black Box Theatre.

ASPEN ” Pegasus Repertory Theatre, named for the mythological winged horse, has had a myth-like existence. It appears, vanishes and reappears in different places; upon re-emergence, it is likely to take on a different form.

Pegasus last took flight in Aspen in 2005, and its presence was on the big screen, with a showing of “Hitler, Stalin and Walter O’Malley.” The nostalgic, baseball-related short film was directed by Aspenite David Ledingham and starred Donald Mackay ” Pegasus’ two co-founders. Previously, the company had landed in New York and Los Angeles, presenting new plays, adaptations of classics by Edward Albee, Harold Pinter and Moliere, and “The Song That Killed the Snake,” a work about the Mexican composer Silvestre Revueltas that featured a 16-piece chamber symphony and was directed by Ledingham for the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s 2002-’03 season.

Pegasus returns to Aspen with a new project, the Aspen Fringe Festival, from Thursday through Saturday, June 4-6, at Aspen High School’s Black Box Theatre. Over three days, two plays will be presented ” the comedy “Almost, Maine,” and the two-person drama “I Have Before Me a Remarkable Document Given to Me By a Young Lady from Rwanda” ” with two performances of each play.

Wherever and however it has appeared, Pegasus has aimed for the same target ” to present work that stresses artistry over easy entertainment. Not that Ledingham and Mackay think an evening at the theater ought to be difficult and strange, but they are committed to challenging audiences and shaking up their thinking.

“I want to create something that’s meaningful,” said Ledingham, who co-directs both of the upcoming plays with Mackay, and is part of the ensemble cast in “Almost, Maine.” “Meaningful, challenging, thought-provoking ” and entertaining ” work.”

“Almost, Maine,” by Maine-born playwright and actor John Cariani, leans closer to the entertaining side. Reviews have called it “pure whimsy” and “goofy”; Ledingham describes it as “just hysterical, so funny.” But the play ” which takes place over one winter night, against the backdrop of the Northern Lights, in a small town in Maine ” examines romance with an element of magical realism, giving it a touch of sophistication. “It’s like taking the stuff that goes on in a relationship, and exploding it into reality,” observed Ledingham, who said “Almost, Maine” represents something “very fresh and new.”

The comedy serves a purpose aside from broadening the horizons of the audience. It is also meant as an opportunity for the performers. The eight-member cast of “Almost, Maine” features five local actors ” Jeannie Walla, Kim Nuzzo, Lee Sullivan, Cathy Markle and Dan Bosko ” as well as talent imported from the coasts (Mackay and Hilary Ward, from L.A., and New Yorker Beth Malone, who follows the Fringe Festival with a role in Theatre Aspen’s summer season). The 19 characters in the play are typically handled by just four actors, but Ledingham thought it a good idea to give as many local performers as possible a chance to work with the Actors’ Equity members. (A separate version of “Almost, Maine,” featuring an all-local cast, will be presented July 12 at Theatre Aspen.)

The production is also giving the pros a new opportunity. The episodic structure of “Almost, Maine” permits rehearsing it in pieces, so some sketches are being practiced in L.A., others in Aspen. Some episodes are being rehearsed over the phone ” a technique that is new to the 48-year-old Ledingham.

The other production, “I Have Before Me …,” fits squarely with the goal of provocation. Sonja Linden’s play, starring Mackay and Ward, examines the relationship between a woman who survived Rwanda’s brutal civil war and an English poet who teaches her to write, so she can put her story in words.

“It’s a poignant and deep look at two completely different people, from completely different cultures, with completely different concerns, finding a common ground as human beings,” said Ledingham.

Pegasus started with the idea of giving a particular audience a richer dramatic experience. In 1994, while he was featured on the soap opera “One Life to Live,” Ledingham wanted to trade on his TV-star status. He and Mackay, his buddy from the graduate acting program at the University of California, San Diego, formed the Rogue Theatre Company in New York.

“Amazingly enough, there were all these great actors, classically trained, bored to tears, on the [“One Life to Live”] set with me,” said Ledingham. “We did classical theater and targeted all the soap opera audiences. They wanted to see the soap stars. We figured, Let’s give them something worth watching. We did Shakespeare, Marivaux. And they were blown away. They had never seen a play before in their lives.”

Ledingham, who grew up mostly in Aspen, doesn’t equate Aspen audiences with soap opera fans. But he does believe that much of the art being presented here has retreated from the cutting-edge that he saw in the Aspen of the past. He changed Rogue Theatre to Pegasus in 1994, when the group debuted in Aspen with Wheeler Opera House performances of Pinter’s “The Dumbwaiter” and Albee’s “Zoo Story.”

“Lately, I feel like what Aspen was in the ’70s and ’80s, an intellectual think tank ” some of that has been displaced by the high-profile identity that Aspen has become,” he said. “I find in a lot of the arts, they’ve taken a safe path. Art in general, because of economics, is always under pressure to conform to what people want to see, which is the name brands that are floating out there, what has already been given a stamp of approval.”

Ledingham has appeared locally in such easy-to-digest fare as a stage version of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” and “Lies and Legends: The Musical Stories of Harry Chapin,” both Theatre Aspen productions. But he has mixed in plenty of cutting-edge work. With Theatre Aspen, he directed Yasmina Reza’s brain-engaging “Art.” Last summer, he collaborated with the Aspen Percussion Ensemble to perform “The City Wears a Slouch Hat,” a complex mix of Dadaesque theater and John Cage music. At this summer’s Aspen Ideas Festival, Ledingham will give a reading of David Ives’ “Sure Thing” ” a one-act play in which the conversation is regularly interrupted by a ringing bell.

Away from Aspen, Ledingham’s recent credits include a role in the touring company of the Tony-winning musical “The Light in the Piazza.”

Ledingham hopes the Fringe Festival will be a catalyst for local arts organizations to collaborate on cutting-edge projects.

“I want to attract people who want to see fresh art in Aspen,” he said. “That’s what the vision is. I want all these arts organizations to contribute something to this festival that they consider provocative and cutting-edge.

“You don’t have to feel like you’re in a bubble here. This is a place where you can develop new ideas and discuss topics of the world in a safe environment, but a creative environment.”