Denver theaters offer three intimate shows, lots of big laughs
Funny. Funnier. Funniest. How you arrange these apt adjectives for “Laughs in Spanish,” “The Death of Napoleon: A Play in Less Than Three Acts” and “Ms. Holmes and Ms. Watson, Apt. 2B” will hinge on your own taste in wit.
But make no mistake, these very different comedies — which all opened last weekend — delight. I have my own preference for the order of things, but it’s not set in stone; it’s merely reflective of a couple of hours of viewing pleasure.
Playwright Kate Hamill has her way with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s deductive duo in “Ms. Holmes and Ms. Watson, Apt. 2B,” which begins with Joan Watson leasing a flat with the air-violin-playing, Russian-composer-loving Sherlock “Don’t Call Her Shirley” Holmes. Although for Hamill, who is adept at turning classics contemporary — having done so with Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” and “Sense and Sensibility – mining the humor in the great sleuth’s hunches is hardly elementary.
It helps to lean on a well-oiled cast to pull off the shenanigans, which the Butterfly Effect Theatre Company has in Anastasia Davidson, Rebecca Remaly, Erika Mori and Michael Morgan.
Davidson is unapologetically zany as Holmes. She zips, she zags, she takes a drag on a pipe filled with what is said to be cannabis. This isn’t Holmes as the coke addict of “The Seven-Per-Cent Solution,” though she is antic. As for her new roomie, Watson arrives at the apartment somewhat gloomy but hardly befuddled. She’s American and perhaps on the lam emotionally. The differences in their demeanors — or is it neuroses? — brings a classic screwball comedy tension to the goings-on.
Having immediately gathered that Watson should be referred to as “Doctor,” Holmes aims to solve the resistant Watson’s panic attacks. They appear to be set off by the sight of blood. But are they? She’ll bring her new “assistant” along for a couple of seemingly unrelated cases to test her theory.
Will Holmes’ archrival Moriarty make an appearance? Elementary. Will Inspector Lestrade bumble in? You betcha. Morgan plays both and does a sly job of breaching the Fourth Wall at the production’s start. Indeed, meta-winks abound.
Departing BETC artistic director Stephen Weitz keeps the comedy crisp. And the play parlays many of the qualities that have made Weitz and Remaly’s artistic company so essential for 17 seasons: The scenic design by Tina Anderson beckons and recombines with elegant efficiency, and the costumes, lighting and sound design are top-notch.
While the first act seems content to stay silly, Act II sounds a wittier note as Holmes and Irene begin a minuet that may or may not depend on seduction. Mori, who does triple duty as the landlord Mrs. Hudson and the wife of a murdered philanderer, is ridiculously amusing as Holmes’ whip-smart frenemy clad in red and black and wielding a riding crop. She’s sure to leave an impression. Ouch.
If you are a fan of absurdist theater, you can’t err ere you see Buntport’s “The Death of Napoleon: A Play in Less Than Three Acts.” The ingenious theater company returns with this welcome original work that finds Napoleon Bonaparte exiled once again, this time to the island of St. Helena (this time for good) with only his moody ruminations, his overtaxed chef, a formidable bee, and a precocious 12-year-old to keep him occupied.
Brian Colonna continues to evolve as a performer, and he doesn’t play “Boney” — as young Betsy Balcombe dubs him — for easy laughs so much as lets the one-time world conqueror wallow in his sour moods, his petulance, his self-pity. These moods are signaled via flags hoisted on the island. The Bee (Hannah Duggan) raises flags. So does young Betsy (Erin Rollman). There’s a flag for “Contemplation” and one for “Languor and Dejection,” among others. But steer clear, regardless.
One poor soul who can’t refuse Napoleon’s beck and call is Chef (Erik Edborg). In white uniform and toque, he high-steps in and out of scenes ensnared in Napoleon’s obsession with whether one sort of bread once baked can become another type.
Given his sulky nature, the tiny sandy atoll that he’s confined to is more sandbox than isle. But for all his temperamental outbursts — “I am not short, I am average” — he knows well that this is his final stop and drafts Bee, Chef and Betsy to help him rehearse his death.
Press materials hinted that this tale of a little-big man furious that his reign has come to an end might resonate with other petty if dismayingly consequential tyrants. But this Napoleon needs no modern antecedent to hold his own and earn the audience’s amused attention.
Did I mention there’s a teeter-totter in the middle of the spare yet handsome set by behind-the-scenes enchanter SamAnTha Schmitz and the rest of the company? Evocative sound and lighting design bring surf sounds and a nighttime hue to the island in the middle of the black box theater on Lipan Street.
See-sawing is not a bad description of the pleasures of “The Death of Napoleon,” which was created by the five-person company. There are history-tweaking jests and then ridiculous physical comedy. Intellect and belly laughs. A cursory peek at Napoleon lore suggests the Buntporters did not loaf in devising another playfully shrewd work so soon after their 50th original work (spring’s “Richard” about Richard III).
There were rhymes made up about Napoleon and Betsy upon hearing her father would be briefly hosting the prisoner (and was terrified he’d have a flaming eye in the middle of his forehead). And that Bee is not a figment of his lonesomeness but the symbol he chose for the empire. And, because this wee comedy is about huge power trips, there will be roses along with that ongoing riff on bread and national identity. Focaccia or baguette, anyone?
Playwright Alexis Scheer’s delightful “Laughs in Spanish” opens on a less-than-delightful note for art gallery owner Mariana (Stephanie Machado). On the eve of Art Basel, one of the world’s largest art market gatherings, the walls of her Wynwood Miami gallery are bare. The only color in the bright white, high-ceilinged space comes from skeins of crime-scene tape.
Her show’s paintings have been stolen and she’s alternately screaming in Spanish and English. She blames her intern Carolina for the disaster in front of a Miami-Dade police officer, who is also Caro’s boyfriend, Juan. Mariana is rattled to be sure, but as the world premiere at the Denver Center Theatre Company makes clear in no time flat, she’s a difficult personality, too.
It takes but a moment to glean that she would be tightly wound even if her show hadn’t been heisted. She barks orders at Caro (Danielle Alonzo), accuses her of stealing the paintings, and then switches on a dime to a firm, flat voice when she picks up the phone. This is an amusing nod to the shift in demeanor and tone that is a gift (at times, a requirement) of being Latino in white spaces. And although the character’s ability to turn on a dime — to “code-switch” — runs throughout the play, this is not really that sort of race play.
The tonal shifts, the tensions, the comedy’s deft beats and sweetest laughs are in the service of the familial and the intercultural. Caro is a Miami-born Cuban American; how she and Mari interact has class implications. Juan (Luis Vega) was born in Medellín, Colombia. The Miami-born playwright, the daughter of a Colombian mom and Jewish dad, knows of whom she writes.
While Mariana is trying to figure out what to do for a gallery opening without art (Juan suggests she show Caro’s paintings), her mother, Estella (Maggie Bofill), arrives unexpectedly from Los Angeles. It’s a big, big entrance. She’s a movie star who got her start in Colombian telenovelas. Her accented English is lush, inviting and intentionally amusing. (Her ex-husband and Mari’s father is Jewish.)
Depending on who you are — an audience member or her only child — Estella’s grand and charming entrance comes either as a sun-dappled breeze or has just sucked all the air out of the room. “Laughs” is very much about a mother-and-child reunion that may or may not end well. A star mom and quasar daughter are bound to have moments of fission. Mariana harbors a list of grievances. Estella needles Mariana about her love life. When Estella’s latest assistant, Jenny (Olivia Hebert), arrives, a new wrinkle is introduced. Make that two new wrinkles.
The comedy also knows it has something special in Caro and Juan. Will the MFA candidate and painter get her artwork up on the barren walls of Studio Six? Will she accept Juan’s proposal? Alonzo and Vega have a warm aura as the couple. He’s so good to her because he sees her, hears her. Alonzo embodies the fierce and the vulnerable in Caro.
In a script note, Scheer indicates the overall vibe: “Everyone should always be a moment away from dancing.” Director Lisa Portes took that to heart and keeps things fluid with a smooth mastery of the play’s swaying rhythms. (The Denver Center sets the mood with pre-curtain bachata and reggaeton beats. Is that you, Bad Bunny?)
This cast is terrific. Machado takes up the burden of being the killjoy here. Her Mariana is bossy, condescending, not particularly likable let alone sympathetic — until, that is she lets her hair down, literally and figuratively. Bofill’s Estella captivates the way a star might: we know we shouldn’t adore her, and yet.
Raquel Barreto’s costumes provide pitch-perfect clues into these characters: Mariana’s periwinkle power suit; Estella’s ease in denim and silk; Carolina’s bright, short dress accentuated with Doc Martens; the clashing patterns that Jenny sports; the starch lines of Juan’s uniform.
The production design by Brian Sidney Bembridge is fluid, too. When the gallery walls give way to a much more colorful Miami, it’s a blast. And when Estella takes the microphone to perform, the shift in light, the background props root these characters in a moment that is deeply Latine and profoundly loving.
IF YOU GO
“Ms. Holmes and Ms. Watson, Apt. 2B”: Written by Kate Hamill. Directed by Stephen Weitz. Featuring Anastasia Davidson, Rebecca Remaly, Michael Morgan and Erika Mori. A Butterfly Effect Theatre of Colorado production through Feb. 25 at the Dairy Arts Center, 2590 Walnut St. Boulder. betc.org info; tickets at thedairy.org
“The Death of Napoleon: A Play in Less Than Three Acts”: A Buntport Theater Company creation. Featuring Brian Colonna, Erik Edborg, Erin Rollman, Hannah Duggan with SamAnTha Schmitz. Through Feb. 19 at Buntport Theater, 717 Lipan. Buntport.com. 720-946-1388
“Laughs in Spanish”: Written by Alexis Scheer. Directed by Lisa Portes. Featuring Stephanie Machado, Luis Vega, Danielle Alonzo, Maggie Bofill and Olivia Herbert. At the Singleton Theatre in the Helen Bonfils Theatre Complex, 14th and Curtis through March 12 For tickets and info: denvercenter.org or 303-893-4100
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