Paris on the Platte

[This review appeared in Variety the week of March 20th.]

Like the political atmosphere in America today, where the fašade of moral righteousness is used to marginalize the human and ecological toll of the our empire, so the City Beautiful movement of the late 19th and early 20th Century served as an aesthetic mask for the imperial rumblings, corrupt political machines, and social unrest of that period. Such were the conditions in the rough and ready streets of Denver depicted in this adventuresome pastiche of melodrama, history, and social commentary.

The principal playwright from 1970 to 2000 for the famed San Francisco Mime Troupe, Joan Holden is now at her best when adapting the political incisiveness of guerilla theatre to the legit stage. A far cry from the in your face agit-prop that surfaced in response to the war in Vietnam, the script melds a class-conscious view of labor and capital with compassionate observations of those attempting to govern the often irreconcilable interests of their constituents.

While the script was undergoing revisions right up to the final rehearsal, and while Holden's experience and skill is evident in her ability to cull drama from the specifics of history and biography, the multitudinous facts, sub-plots, and characters that form the fabric of Denver's history are, at times, too much to comprehend. Here a combination of judicious editing and more distinctive costuming and makeup could deliver a stronger dramatic arc.

Photo of Tupper Cullum as Mayor Robert Speer
Tupper Cullum as
Mayor Robert Speer
Photo: Michael Ensminger
Denver has constantly reinvented itself to survive, and Holden captures this spirit in the character of Mayor Robert Speer, who ruled the Queen City of the Plains from 1904 to1912 and, again, from 1916 until his death in1918. Democrat Speer's marriage of convenience with Republican business magnate Wm. G. Evans is depicted with particular insight in a series of conversations that reveal, despite the seeming diversion of their public posturing, the mutual economic interests of the two men and their respective supporters—so much for the "two-party system."

Photo of Tupper Cullum as Mayor Speer and Jada Roberts as Mrs. L.K. Daniels
Tupper Cullum as Mayor Speer and
Jada Roberts as Mrs. L.K. Daniels
Photo: Michael Ensminger
The particulars of Speer's reign are the stuff of legends. He seized and maintained power through rigged elections, while holding together a coalition of interests that included organized crime, labor, and the city's wealthy businessmen. No hard sell was required (nor given) to effectively communicate to the audience the parallels with today's national powerbrokers. Knowing laughs were heard throughout the production.

Photo of Dee Covington as Mattie Silks and Erik Sandvold as Gov. Wm. G. Evans
Dee Covington as Mattie Silks
and Erik Sandvold
as Gov. Wm. G. Evans
Photo: Michael Ensminger
Yet Speer was not content to simply line the pockets of his friends, as is the case with our current crop of international bandits. Like his modern mayoral successors, beginning with Federico Pena, who asked the voters to "imagine a great city," he exacted taxes and contributions to redesign and beautify Denver, cleaning up the creeks that flowed through the city limits from the mountains, and leaving a legacy of public works that include the Auditorium Theatre, the Civic Center, tree-lined greenways and boulevards, and the city's famous mountain park system. Indeed, his spirit reverberates today in Denver's 20-year building boom, which brought more improvements to infrastructure—including an airport, downtown mall, business parks, convention center, library, aquarium, amusement park, baseball stadium, hockey and basketball arena, football stadium, and art museum—than any other city in the world at this time.

Photo of Megan Meek as Italian Immigrant, Christopher Leo as Jewish Immigrant, and Jada Roberts as Gardener
Megan Meek as Italian Immigrant,
Christopher Leo as Jewish Immigrant,
and Jada Roberts as Gardener
Photo: Michael Ensminger
The eight-member ensemble does yeomen's work reinventing themselves at the drop of a hat in 30 different roles that represent a mix of historical and fictional figures, serving to balance the noblesse obligé, big picture issues with the sundry, everyday concerns of the little people. The kaleidoscopic effect of covering so much ground limits memorable characterizations to a fleeting few, in particular: Tupper Cullum's bombastic, conniving, and visionary Speer, Dee Covington's brash, lusty Mattie Silks, Erik Sandvold's imperious Evans, Christopher Leo's passionate Jewish Immigrant, Kendra Crain McGovern's crusading Virginia, Jada Roberts' idealistic, orphaned African-American, Delores, and Megan Meek's trousers role as the impetuous Mayor's Secretary.

Photo of Kendra Crain McGovern (foreground) as Val, and Megan Meek (background) as Polly
Kendra Crain McGovern (foreground) as Val,
and Megan Meek (background) as Polly
Photo: Michael Ensminger
Director Chip Walton combines a melodramatic look and feel with selected moments of Brechtian realism to deliver Holden's biting, satirical moments and rewarding realizations. The entertainment is diluted, however, by occasional intrusions of historical recitation, telegraphed pronouncements, and side-bars in need of gleaning; the conceit of a play-within-a-play, referred to in one early scene, unnecessarily confuses the story at that point, and also could be easily jettisoned.

Michael R. Duran's design and Susan Crabtree's elegant shading and perspective on the painted scenery, replete with a marvelous period facsimile proscenium and curtain depicting an early vista of Denver City, has us imagining gas footlights illuminating the actors, while David Dunbar's whiz-bang live ragtime accompaniment completes the atmosphere.

Though offering an astute perspective on local history, with a little work Paris on the Platte could, much like the film The Streets of New York, provide a seamless universal critique of the corrupt political and social behaviors that Americans nationwide have grown to accept at all levels of governance, and thus serve as an effective metaphor at any theatre in the country.

Curious Theatre Company's world premiere of Joan Holden's Paris on the Platte runs through April 23rd at the Acoma Center. 303-623-0524.

Bob Bows


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