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Which ones the charm?

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CAT's Harvey well worth 'seeing'

The daughter of Irish immigrants, Denverite Mary Chase was reared on stories of leprechauns and fairies, and she remembers being told by her mother never to make fun of people whom others consider crazy.

That good advice came in handy when the reporter-turned-playwright penned her 1944 play Harvey, now playing through Dec. 17 at the Smokebrush Center. The second production in the Colorado Actors' Theater's first season, Harvey is a hilarious case study of normalcy and insanity -- and the thin line that separates the two.

Far kinder, gentler and funnier than psychiatric heart wrenchers in the One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest vein, the play is named after its central, and non-existent, lead character, an imaginary 6-foot 4-inch-tall rabbit named Harvey. That rabbit, it turns out, is only visible (at least through most of the play) to the play's central character, Elwood P. Dowd, played wonderfully by CAT artistic director Gregory "Ziggy" Wagrowski.

A well-to-do simpleton who spends much of his time buying drinks for friends -- including Harvey -- Dowd's good intentions make everyone around him feel -- well -- big, warm and fuzzy. But his friendship with the oversized, invisible rabbit make this otherwise model citizen the butt of jokes and the object of a madcap effort to have him committed to the nuthouse.

The part seems perfectly crafted for Wagrowski, who dons Dowd's calm, good nature as comfortably as he wears the character's well-shaped fedora and loosely tailored suit. An experienced actor and director, Wagrowski has considerable poise, which serves him well in the role of Dowd, whose optimism is undaunted by the constant scheming, skepticism and duplicity of the play's other characters.

Those other characters, by the way, are filled by a consistent cast of experienced actors who are both funny and even believable (if the latter word means anything in the context of an invisible, oversized, non-existent lead character) as they run about hysterically, trying to put a straitjacket on our hero's bizarre eccentricities.

Some of the standouts include Keith Smith, who plays the pompous and eminent psychiatrist William R. Chumley, and Barbara Summerville, who plays the socially conscious, completely neurotic and (for the most part) sympathetic older sister of Elwood. Both these actors are hilariously funny as their characters get more and more hysterical through the play's many twists and turns.

But even more tertiary roles -- the insecure and besotted RN Ruth Kelly, played by Elgin Kelley, and the distinguished and somewhat befuddled Judge Gaffney, played by Gordon Hinds -- are all filled with good comedic actors who also know how to capture an audience's sympathies.

True to Elwood's non-discriminating good will toward the common guy, it's the play's smallest role, cab driver E.J. Lofgren (played by John Barber), who makes the play's most poignant observation. The people he drives to the sanitarium for treatment, he notes, are usually happy and kind, if not completely insane, when they enter. But when they come back from treatment, well they're just like "normal people."

The thin line between normal and nuts was also embodied in the clever, between-scenes stage reset, which quickly transformed an ornate Victorian sitting room into the stark interior of a psychiatric ward. It was the first time I've ever seen a set change get a round of applause, though that was partly due to the zany songs, which had the audience laughing out loud as they played through the house sound system during the three-minute set change.

As for Harvey, he was played perfectly by himself, in a difficult role for which stage presence, impeccable timing and an occasional door slam had to compensate for a complete lack of speaking lines. So maybe I'm nuts, but I say the Colorado Actors Theater's Harvey is well worth, um, seeing before these fine performers are released from their roles at the show's close on Dec. 17.


Star Bar's Crimes needs a timing adjustment

Beth Henley's Crimes of the Heart is a deceptively doable play. It starts with the set: a full kitchen with life-sized oven, a family fridge, cabinets stocked with soups and spices -- everything including the kitchen sink. It doesn't need to be lavish, inviting, or even oderific. As long as it seems real, we've got a head start in accepting the outlandish antics of the Magrath sisters -- bizarre, inexplicable, borderline -- but just barely believable.

In spite of its obsession with hereditary suicide, attempted murder and cruelty to cats, the play is essentially a comedy. And despite the city of Colorado Springs' consistent effort to damn the Star Bar Players with repeated scheduling snafus, the cast and crew must, for the good of the theatergoing public, accept some of the blame for leaving their audience laugh-challenged.

There are a half-dozen good performances on stage at the Lon Chaney Theater, and occasionally those performances rise up a notch or two to be stirring and memorable. KatRyn Armstrong's Meg is marked by moments of confident characterization, where the inherent strength of the washed up starlet gives in to the delicious pleasures of bourbon and cigarettes. Kitty King's Babe is intoxicatingly risky as the youngest sister who has already taken her climactic step into herself when the play's action opens, leaving her two hours and three acts to figure out what to do with her denouement. And Ellen Ottley's big sister Lenny is an anchor to insanity, always on the verge of being swept away by one mood or another until she finally asserts her broom on her busy-body cousin's behind.

But for a play that ultimately succeeds on the ability of its separate parts to meld together into an ensemble, this production of Crimes of the Heart never quite clicks on all cylinders. For whatever reason -- the missing energy from a largely missing audience courtesy of the city's last-minute scheduling coup, the disorienting varieties of Southern accents never quite falling into cadence, or a simple miscalculation on the time needed to fine-tune the play's eloquent and lyrical Southern dialogue -- the ensemble came out of their opening weekend needing a timing adjustment. Director Ricky Vila-Roger let his cast hang a little too loose on stage Sunday, stepping on lines, letting cues dangle, and most inexcusably, neglecting the energy that needs to sparkle from Magrath to Magrath as they plumb the depths of their sisterly psyches.

Supporting cast members Krysia Kubiak as cousin Chick and Mark Hennessy as the dark Doc never fully lift their characters from ranks of short-handed stereotypes. Kubiak can be forgiven for playing up Chick's one-dimensional instinct to irritate, but Hennessy is a man overboard as he makes an icon of angst out of the moody Doc, milking monosyllabic lines for much more than they're worth.

The chemistry gets stirred up when Andrew Porter takes the stage as the disarmingly charming young lawyer Barnette Lloyd. Porter ensures that his character is never self-contained, always depending on his cast mates to evoke his actions and reactions, while conversely pushing his peers to interact with him, bursting any bubbles of security cast members might be tempted to take refuge in.

Crimes of the Heart is inescapably funny, even if the tickling elicits mere smiles instead of belly laughs. It is also remotely serious, addressing family dysfunctionality and life-changing moments of crisis. It's a fine production, far from disappointing, and as the show's run plays out, the cast is likely to gain the confidence and assurance necessary to turn the tide from a slightly loose assembling of actors who never entirely step away from the visible edge of artifice to a tightly fused ensemble, hitting the play's rhythms and letting the language wash over them like the natural force it is.


Butterfly script fails to create fully human characters

If nothing else, the Masquers production of I Never Saw Another Butterfly challenges our comfort level as turn of the century audiences, a handful of generations removed from World War II and the Holocaust. The play has the power to turn its audiences into cynics, tricking us into the belief that there is nothing left to learn from another story of suffering and inhumanity. Recognizing the instinctive defense mechanism of cynicism is one of our best hopes for surviving the play.

I Never Saw Another Butterfly is based on the memoirs of Raja Englanderova, a Holocaust survivor who was sent to Terezin concentration camp 60 miles from her home in Prague at age 12. "My name is Raja," she tells by way of bookended introduction and conclusion to the play. "What is important is that I am a Jew. And I survived."

One of the most important things about the play is Michael D. Stansbery's simple yet evocative set. The bare wooden platforms have seven different dimensions, five levels of depth and five levels of height as the worn looking wood juts into the shape of a Star of David. With a couple benches, a couple stools, and a table all cut from the same discarded woods, the set piece has the potential to be remarkably flexible, creating varied locales and specific regions within Raja's memory, each one raked one direction or another, slanting downstage, stage left, or stage right. Additionally, Stansbery makes ample use of his fabric side walls, creating numerous surfaces to catch the light and to serve as broken projection screens for slides of photographs and drawings from Terezin. The design underscores the range of perspectives, the jutting angles wedged against each other in an uncomfortable unity. Unfortunately, the play itself is much flatter than its set.

Although the use of German accents suggests a level of authenticity, the net effect is to make the characters sound as though they are speaking pidgin English, always revealing the subtle stress of a communication barrier. Characters are too easily abridged into caricatures as a result, a dangerous risk in a play that desperately needs to offer warm souls in place of case studies. The material has so much to do with the poetic expression of intensely real emotions and experiences; the audience might be trusted to accept the omission of accents in favor of a clarity and power of spoken word.

In part the production misses because it cannot make sustainable scenes out of interwoven monologues, poems and memories. When Carrie Clark can offer a dynamic, powerful portrayal of Raja but still cannot bring the character fully into focus, it is clear that there is something deficient in the script's dramatic structure. We see Raja in Prague with her family, at Terezin with her teacher, falling in love with a young man named Honza, and ultimately surviving Terezin. But we end up without a description of Reja that can transcend the events she experienced. Raja moves in and out of her scenes as character and narrator with a degree of detachment that breaks the audience's quest for the rhythm of the narrative. She is the personification of her circumstances, but neither she nor any of the other characters come across as organic, motivated, multidimensional characters.

I Never Saw Another Butterfly is a bit too much of what audiences are likely to suspect it is. It doesn't surprise us with the fresh scent of new perspectives, the unique blending of overlooked colors or the deliberate seasoning of unanticipated emotion. It is a consistent, determined story, unabashedly heavy-handed with a merciless desire to manipulate our emotions toward one inescapable sentiment. The claustrophobia of the script is real, the stories justifiably difficult. But, unfortunately, it doesn't culminate in provocative theater.

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