Two minutes of bodies rolling chaotically and silently on a dark stage while John D. Rockefeller, to a primitive drumbeat, mindlessly tosses greenbacks in the wind, may make for the most powerful, revelatory experience you'll ever have at Murray Ross' TheatreWorks. It's observable now in the world premiere of Ludlow, 1914.
The other 88 minutes, however, often suffer from halting momentum, ponderous scene changes, shaky execution and muddy conceptualizing. Ludlow's guest director is Brian Freeland, of Denver's LIDA Project, and he seems determined to guide his material at 35 mph in a 65-mph zone. Audiences endure the expected frustration.
Still, Ludlow achieves some remarkable effects, most of which occur when it deliberately shatters its own visually captivating stage reality. This is definitely how the show should look — as a tragic forum for anticapitalist solidarity, as a onetime Colorado mining camp, and a laboratory for audience transformation all at once. Thanks to a 21-specialist design team that includes a pixel twister/cinematographer (Aileen Semira Jocson), an incandescence artisan (Kevin Zegan), an anti-gravity consultant (Beaner Sheridan) and a ghost light metalsmith (Shaun Sites), Ludlow is consistently ear- and eye-catching.
Freeland is less concerned about telling the Ludlow story than borrowing it for experimental purposes, moving Ludlow from stage to projection screen to elevated platform. A kind of audience shock therapy is the desired objective, that we enter the theater like Bambi but leave like Frankenstein's monster, ready to fire a homemade bazooka at a regional branch of JP Morgan Chase.
The play borrows from numerous sources for storytelling purposes. For example, Rockefeller's mistresses either turn to us with passionate renditions of the ghost of Hamlet's father, or foretell conflict by enacting entire scenes from Henry V. Children burst forth with passages from Genesis ("and slime had they for mortar") or join in choral celebrations of Led Zeppelin songs. Sarcastic depictions of 19th-century melodrama are followed by "Capitalism" and "Socialism" facing off as opponents from World Wrestling Entertainment, and so on.
Some of these thematic inventions work better than others, some not at all, and most of what they signify is sheer guesswork.
Ludlow is intentionally experimental, and that's OK, even welcome. To borrow from other sources or contexts can be exciting. But what this attempt needs is more connective tissue between classic Shakespeare, classic rock and the other material Freeland is relating or claiming relevant to the actual tragedy of 100 years ago.
It also needs a prominent, unmistakable antagonist, whether it's Rockefeller, or capitalism itself. As produced, it just shrugs about the whole thing. Here's the problem, the story seems to say, but there's really nothing we can or should do about it.
As in most plays, the most potent scenes are the ones that are best acted. Jane Fromme and Terry Burnsed give the material their all, and Mark Cannon again tramps about in lovable Buster Keaton fashion. All appear more than willing to "explore" the "new paths" that Ross observes in a program note. If only those paths were laid out more clearly from scene to scene.