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‘Aspen Soap’: Lathered up about things

Stewart OksenhornAspen, CO Colorado
Paul Conrad/Aspen Times Weekly
ALL |

ASPEN Like your standard televised soap opera, “The Aspen Soap” will feature cliffhanger story endings, doctors and their patients, and at least one reasonably inappropriate love affair. Beyond that, “The Aspen Soap,” which has its premiere episode this weekend, is several steps removed from “Days of Our Lives” and “The Guiding Light.”For one, “The Aspen Soap” is a stage production presented at Aspen High School’s Black Box Theatre. Kent Reed, director of the show and also of the Hudson Reed Ensemble, which is putting it on, has no concrete plans to televise the show. And while Reed calls the show a satire and expects laughter to be a primary audience response, he wants “The Aspen Soap” not only to reflect on contemporary local issues, but also, perhaps, to have an impact on how they are thought about. Reed, after all, is passionate about theater, not about daytime TV.”With this series, we always want to be commenting on what Aspen is commenting on,” said the 63-year-old Reed. “We want to be relevant. We want to have a point of view. We’ll undoubtedly have a point of view.”

Reed hesitates to specify his own views. But his Hudson Reed Ensemble made its debut two years ago with “The Crucible,” Arthur Miller’s 1953 play about the Salem witch trials – and a naked criticism of the McCarthyism and Hollywood blacklisting of the playwright’s own era. When Reed staged “The Crucible” in Aspen, in 2005, he spoke about the relevance of the play not only to Miller’s time, but to our own.”When people get in their mind that they have the big picture for the country, and people should fall in line with their view of things, that gets dangerous. Especially when it’s born out of fear, as it was in Salem, as it was during McCarthy’s era, or as it is today,” Reed told The Aspen Times in 2005. Among the projects Reed has in mind for the Hudson Reed Ensemble is a series of lunchtime speeches, with actors resurrecting the words of such heavy orators as Winston Churchill, Julius Caesar and George Patton. Clearly he’s got more on his mind than the steamy romances and sordid relationships that mark “General Hospital.””This country, it’s lost its moral center,” said Reed. “And it doesn’t seem like money or politics is the answer to this dilemma.”It’s my feeling that the arts need to influence the current condition of Aspen and the current condition of this country. It’s our responsibility to comment on these things. Not always. But this is a satire, and hopefully, like all good satire, it will make people think about things while also laughing at them.”Before Reed tackles the larger problems of the U.S. of A., he’ll address the smaller issues that plague and amuse Aspenites. The initial episode of “The Aspen Soap” – which debuts Saturday, March 31, and has repeat performances Sunday, April 1, and Friday through Sunday, April 6-8 – has fictionalized bits about the mayoral race, Highway 82, employee housing and dating. The sexual angle gets localized; it involves an older woman – a “cougar” in the parlance of our time and place – and a younger ski instructor.

It’s a good bet that the biggest buzz following tomorrow’s premiere will be not about issues, but one of the actors. Felicity Huffman, who grew up in Aspen before becoming a TV and film star, is set to make a guest appearance with the Hudson Reed Ensemble, only for Saturday’s show. That performance, with tickets at $50, is the first fundraising event for the two-year-old Hudson Reed Ensemble.Huffman, who earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress last year for her work in “Transamerica,” and who earned an Outstanding Lead Actress Emmy for the role of Lynette on “Desperate Housewives,” will play the daughter of aging Aspenite Victoria Monté, played by her real-life mom, Woody Creeker Grace Huffman. (Also appearing, as the counterman at the concessions stand in the local movie theater, is Joe Trautman, Felicity Huffman’s nephew.) Reed directed Huffman in several plays in the mid-’80s at Theatre Under the Jerome – now Theatre Aspen – an organization founded by Reed.The idea for something like “The Aspen Soap” has been in Reed’s mind since his first go-round in Aspen in the mid-’70s. He was not thinking, then or now, about creating a variation on “The Edge of Aspen,” a popular Aspen-themed soap opera that ran on GrassRoots TV. (Reed has never seen the TV show, but the bit that he knows of it – for example, that one of the characters was named “Lance Boyle” – makes him confident in saying that “The Edge of Aspen” was “a completely different animal, and wouldn’t inform what we do.”) But in the ’80s, Reed was consumed with Theatre Under the Jerome, which he served as director, actor, producer and fundraiser.But Reed says a lot changed between 1990, when he left Aspen for Chicago, to focus on acting, and 2004, when he returned. For his purposes, the most significant change was the rise in the local talent pool.

“The time is right to make this idea manifest,” he said. “And the right talent is here. There’s a kind of synchronicity.”Some of that expansion in the available talent can be chalked up to Reed and his current company. The Hudson Reed Ensemble has presented a slate of productions in its two years, including the well-received Vaudeville-style show “Mélange”; the murder comedy “Red Herring”; the Christmas show “Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol”; and a series of romantic Shakespeare scenes. Those shows have given the all-local company valuable experience.Reed has, in turn, benefited from the experience of his cast members. “The Aspen Soap” grew out of a series of workshops Reed began conducting in January. Typically, Reed would construct the simple outline of a situation, then have a pair of actors improvise within that frame. Reed filmed these spontaneous exchanges and extracted dialogue from the scenes. “Improvisation,” said Reed, “is the closest you can get to real human behavior.”And to get the closest thing to true stories, you rely on the people who actually live them. “Until we get some hot writers – they’re here; we just have to find them – these actors know this town,” said Reed. “They walk around in it. They’re bartenders, real estate people. They have fascinating stories. They can write about things that a Hollywood person wouldn’t know anything about. It’s a very organic process.”From those stories, Reed worked up a show involving 16 actors. “The Aspen Soap” revolves around two settings: the Blue Moon Bar & Restaurant, presided over by bartender Dennis Monté (played by Ralph Sheehan, a real-life bartender at The Little Nell and a former actor at Theatre Under the Jerome), and the psychiatry office of Dr. Heinz Heinemann (Gary Morabito). “Office,” though, does not accurately describe the doctor’s digs. Unable to afford Aspen rent, Heinz has set up a cot and lawn chairs in a storage closet, which he only has use of from 8 p.m. to midnight. His co-worker (Kelly Ish) trades her secretarial skills for therapy sessions.

“I wanted to give two different kinds of forums,” said Reed of the two locations. “One a more social setting and another where these guys could let out their wacko ideas, more a revelation of what they’re really thinking. They’ll say things to Dr. Heinemann that they wouldn’t say out loud in the Blue Moon. So there’s the inside and outside voices.”Other characters include the mayoral candidate/trust-funder/failing businessman Nick Nazzario (Kim Nuzzo), “who has some really wacko ideas on how to deal with Aspen’s problems,” said Reed, and Lex Vanguard (Lee Sullivan), a large-animal veterinarian who administers collagen implants (to humans) on the side.Reed doesn’t have any further episodes sketched out yet. But the first installment of “The Aspen Soap” ends with lots of balls still up in the air, soap-style. “Because we want you to tune in next week,” said Reed.Outside of that structure, Reed says there is more depth and believability in his show than on daytime TV. The stage, at least as Reed sees it, doesn’t translate well to the pat stories detailed in Soap Opera Digest.”It’s all risky business,” said Reed, who lives in a Hunter Creek studio. “We’re in the risky theater business. ‘The Crucible’ – using relatively inexperienced actors in a play that is an American monument – that’s risky business. But we pulled it off and made a statement about integrity. Theater should be a risky business or you don’t innovate. You don’t put yourself out there.

“I’ve been around this town for 30 years, and I have a definite point of view about this town and what people can do about it. There’s a lot to love in this town. And a lot that needs to be adjusted, in my opinion.”The Hudson Reed Ensemble presents “The Aspen Soap,” directed by Kent Reed, in the Black Box Theatre at Aspen High School on Saturday, March 31, at 8 p.m., with special guest actor Felicity Huffman; and Sunday, April 1, and Friday through Sunday, April 6-8, at 7:30 p.m.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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