History provides inspiration for two plays in metro area

Denver, Aurora stages give audiences a look at productions based on reality

Posted 9/17/18

Playwrights have drawn plots from history since this grand tradition of storytelling began. We visited two over the weekend that are very different, yet both very much worth a visit during the month …

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History provides inspiration for two plays in metro area

Denver, Aurora stages give audiences a look at productions based on reality

Posted

Playwrights have drawn plots from history since this grand tradition of storytelling began. We visited two over the weekend that are very different, yet both very much worth a visit during the month or so they’re available — with powerful stories and strong acting: “The Cake” at Curious Theatre in Denver and “Kentucky Cycle” at Vintage Theatre in Aurora.

• “Kentucky Cycle Parts 1 & 2” by Robert Schenkkan, won a Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1992, when it premiered at Seattle’s Inman Theatre — the only Pulitzer that was not first presented in New York. Linda Suttle of Littleton was excited to be cast in this epic work and plays several parts as the nine short plays, presented in two parts, tell histories of three families, white, black and American Indian, and the ongoing struggles over land in the Cumberland Plateau as the nation formed and changed.

Vintage Theatre Company is to be commended for taking on this huge project, which totals about six hours of onstage action, a large cast and an incredible amount of planning and rehearsal time. Director Craig Bond has really made the pieces tie together over the 200 years that run from Revolutionary times until the War on Poverty. A timeline in American history might be worth checking if it’s been a while for the theater fan—but that’s not essential.

Stage sets throughout are necessarily simple and suggest where the story is going.

We first meet Michael Rowan (Perry Lewis) in “Masters of the Trade,” as he establishes claim to a piece of land, which had been Indian territory, in a forest scene with trappers, Cherokee people and mountain man types. He next captures an American Indian woman (Christin Mason) to be his wife — and servant — in “The Courtship of Morning Star” (1776). By 1792, the Rowan homestead is established, a son, Patrick Rowan (Sam Gilstrap) is born and grows up, and neighbor Joe Talbert (David Harms), his daughter Rebecca Talbert (Mariel Goffredi) and a black slave, Sallie Biggs (OD Duhu) enter the scene and stay, representing other points of view in “The Homecoming” (1792) and “Ties That Bind.” Part 1 ends with a cast of 20, as the Civil War is happening, in “God’s Great Supper” (1861), with Linda Suttle as Jolene Rowan.

Here one has two options: You can see this on two different days, or plan on afternoon and evening, with time out for dinner in between. (Vintage offers dinner on site ($15), by advance reservation — or one could go out nearby and return for Part 2.

Part 2 begins with “Tall Tales” in 1890, where subsequent-generation Rowans, Jed and Lallie, appear, and there is an offer for the ancestral land … Another chapter in American history begins here when the lush green land is stripped bit by bit as coal mines are developed. Local men go to work in the mines and another sort of cultural legend builds. Joshua Rowan is a labor organizer and “Fire in the Hole” addresses political and social currents, as well as explosion when safety issues aren’t addressed. The anguished wait for the list of dead strains everyone involved as we move on to 1954, “Whose Side are You On?”— more political disagreements and Suttle as Margaret Rowan. The mines have slowed down and finally, in the last segment, “The War on Poverty,” the once-fertile land is laid waste and social programs aid unemployed miners’ families as they exist in poverty in 1975 — and on.

No upbeat songs and tap-dancing here, but a solid work of art that will become part of our national body of legends. See it while you can.

•Í “The Cake” by Bekkah Brunsteter, presented by Curious Theatre in Denver, is based on the very-familiar-to-Coloradans story of the baker who refused to create a wedding cake for a gay couple, based on religious conviction. David Mullins and Charlie Craig sued the Masterpiece Cake Shop in Lakewood, claiming that Colorado law prohibited businesses from refusing service based on a buyer’s sexual orientation. In 2013, Judge Robert Spencer determined that Masterpiece had violated Colorado law and Masterpiece appealed. The Colorado Civil Rights Commission became involved in 2014 and the case ended up in front of the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of Masterpiece in June, saying the Civil Rights Commission used bias in its decision.

“The Cake” opens in Della’s Sweet Shop in today’s North Carolina, with Della (the excellent actress Emma Messenger, making her debut at Curious) talking happily about the wonderful qualities of a cake — the butter and sugar and loving care — as she works on one. “People say `I can do that!’” she notes. “I say to those people `the only way you get that taste is the taste of time and obedience …’” She is set on always following the instructions exactly — in the bakery and in life, where the Bible and her church guide her. The simple set includes a pair of pastry cases, tables and chairs, and the stage is lit by a colorful sign. One can almost smell something good in the oven after meeting Della.

Della dreams about being on television — on the “Great American Bakery Show” — and has entered. A screen talks to her as she works — sometimes thundering criticism (the voice of God?). Della is a sweet character and one can’t help but like her.

Macy (Jada Susan Dixon) enters and observes that she’s heard those shows are rigged — showing her edgy New York persona, adding a crack about basing one’s life on a book that’s hundreds of years old.

“I feel there’s a whole lot of goodness in the world,” sweet Della says in response — totally sincere — offering Macy a slice of her special cake. “I don’t eat cake” is the reply …

Enter Jen (Alaina Beth Reel), the daughter of Della’s best friend, who has come to talk about a cake for her upcoming wedding. But when Della learns that Jen and Macy are to be married, she suddenly finds that her calendar is too full to bake one for them. The play continues with dialogue between these women and between Macy and Jen — and then turns for a while to Della’s life with her husband, Tim, and some very brave and funny scenes between the pair. Tim is played by Michael Morgan, also a very strong actor, and interaction is delicately presented and sweet.

Playwright Bekkah Brunstetter, who grew up in a conservative North Carolina family, spoke about her own responses: “I hear the other point of view echoing in my head … I see myself getting split, ripped in half. On both sides, they’re forgetting the human being that’s at the center of this.” She continued: “A lot of plays are more on the scathing side when it comes to organized religion. It was really important to me to start with a character who has conservative values and make her the hero,” she told the Los Angeles Times.

And, Emma Messenger play the part to a T. It’s a don’t-miss performance.

If you go:

“Kentucky Cycle” plays through Oct. 21 at Vintage Theatre, 1468 Dayton St., Aurora, vintagetheatre.org, 303-856-7830.

“The Cake” plays through Oct. 13 at Curious Theatre, 1080 Acoma St., Denver. 303-623-0524, curioustheatre,org

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