In Denver, A New Play Both Outrages and Heals a Community Numbed by Tragedy

News   In Denver, A New Play Both Outrages and Heals a Community Numbed by Tragedy
 
The Denver Center Theatre Company staging of a provocative new play has coincided with a national tragedy to create a theatre event that audiences are both outraged and touched by in the Mile High City.
Steven Memran as Youssef Omir and Patricia Dalen as Niki Dunn in The Elevation of Thieves.
Steven Memran as Youssef Omir and Patricia Dalen as Niki Dunn in The Elevation of Thieves. Photo by Photo by Dan McNeil

The Denver Center Theatre Company staging of a provocative new play has coincided with a national tragedy to create a theatre event that audiences are both outraged and touched by in the Mile High City.

Since the first preview May 6, theatregoers attending the world premiere of Nagle Jackson's dark satire, The Elevation of Thieves, have been shocked at the play's climax, which erupts with random shootings and a gunman's suicide, hauntingly mirroring the April 20 murders and suicides at Columbine High School in suburban Denver.

The play was written three years ago (winning an international Onassis Playwriting Award) and involves a European town caught up in a conflict concerning a local religious ritual, the nature of which changes when it becomes a televised event. The town's pageant is an Easter ritual in which three crosses are raised, and locals are chosen to play the thieves who are "elevated" on hillside crucifixes, flanking Jesus' cross.

Some in Denver have noted the striking link to crosses that have dotted Clement Park, the hill near Columbine High School in Littleton, CO.

Some audience members have said not canceling the play is an act of arrogance or insensitivity, but artistic director Donovan Marley and the DCTC board of directors decided to continue with the work, calling the event a kind of "healing." "There is nothing in The Elevation of Thieves that is as offensive as some of the media coverage [of the Columbine tragedy]," said Marley, in a statement. "Thousands of hours of television footage was shot and broadcast over and over. Our artists have not only the right, but the obligation to enter this discussion."

No shootings take place on stage, there is no blood and there are no screams or death scenes, said Marley. He added, "There is, however, a passionate discussion of issues presented and conducted with a great deal more taste, judgment and care than the media coverage that began bombarding the community before those who died had even been identified."

Ultimately, Marley said, "I believe that The Elevation of Thieves is a healing event. I have observed the audience. I have talked to patrons immediately after the performance and after they have had one or more days of reflection."

Marley continued, "This community must find ways to live with the horrible facts of the event. I believe that theatre rituals can help. I believe that the communal expression of deep emotion in a ritual event, such as a religious service or a theatrical...performance is healthy."

The Denver Post reported that some theatregoers felt "blindsided" and "violated" by the work and there was not enough warning about the play's violent ending, which takes place off stage to the sounds of gunshots and explosions.

However, DCTC spokesman Chris Wiger told Playbill On-Line a theatregoer approached him after a performance and said it was the first time she was able to cry since the Littleton shootings.

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The play officially opened May 13 at the DCTC's 700-seat Stage Theatre. Reviews were favorable, with Post critic Sandra Dillard giving the work three-and-a-half stars out of four. She noted in her review that some people on opening night were "outraged," others were "sobbing" and still others were "contemplative."

The darkly comic work was the third-place winner in the international plays competition sponsored by the Alexander S. Onassis Foundation.

Proceeds from ticket sales for the May 13 opening night were contributed to The Healing Fund for students at Columbine High School in suburban Littleton, CO. The Fund is administered by Mile High United Way.

In Jackson's script, a quiet European town is turned upside-down when its annual religious pageant of atonement is turned into a TV spectacular. The Muslim population soon wishes for inclusion in the Christian pageant and the town leaders become caught between the townspeople and the network. The local sports hero fights to get a leading role in the Easter ritual.

This is the second world premiere by DCTC this May, representing the mainstage entries in the US WEST TheatreFest. Staged readings of new works happen in June, rounding out the TheatreFest.

Coinciding with the May 6 first preview of Elevation of Thieves, Richard Hellesen's Kingdom officially opened at the DCTC's Space Theatre. The Elevation of Thieves is the final DCTC production of the 1998-99 season. Both plays, as it turns out, are dark, quirky allegories about larger issues, and both close June 5.

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The country and city in Jackson's script are not named, said DCTC's Wiger, making the playwright's points about social, religious, racial and economic conflicts more universal and potent.

Jackson, former artistic director of the McCarter Theatre, directs his own script on scenic and lighting designer Pavel Dobrusky's set (with a large, slanted, grass-covered disc representing the pageant's hillside site). Costumes are by Kevin Copenhaver, sound is by David R. White.

The ensemble includes Kathleen M. Brady, Tony Church, Patricia Dalen, Anthony De Fonte, Sarah Flanagan, Douglas Harmsen, Jamie Horton and John Hutton, Steven Memran, Anthony Powell and Corliss Preston.

Playwright-director Jackson was artistic director of the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, NJ., from 1979 to 1990. He is the first American to win the Onassis Foundation International Playwriting Award. He took third prize in the competition, whose mandate was for work about "problems facing mankind at the turn of the new century."

His play, The Quick-Change Room, had its world premiere by DCTC in 1995 and played New York City's INTAR Theatre in 1997. His Taking Leave was presented by DCTC in 1997-98 and was nominated for the American Theatre Critics New Play Award.

The Denver Center Theatre Company earned a 1998 Tony Award for Outstanding Regional Theatre. The company performs in the Helen Bonfils Theatre Complex, which houses four spaces.

Elevation of Thieves tickets range $23-$34. For information, call (303) 893-4100 or (800) 641-1222.

-- By Kenneth Jones

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