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Fire on the Water 

CAT makes a spash with The Nest

Image is everything. But don't let me overstate the case. Franz Xaver Kroetz goes well beyond appearances in his realistic depiction of a working-class German character trying to use his conscience to measure the realities of consumerism against the idealism of his values.

Kroetz cuts below the surface, but the Colorado Actors' Theater sees no problem in using images to enhance the play's realism while simultaneously underscoring its vision -- from the pared down furnishings of the apartment to the plantable allotment garden outside. Most notably, set designer Christian Medovich dominates the stage with a beautifully barren tree, its tangle of twigs and branches catching Tom Studer's light and its subtly dichotic connotations of shelter and emptiness coloring the action on the stage with far-reaching shadows.

Equally compelling is Gregory "Ziggy" Wagrowski's sound design. Birds tweet and trucks pull away as well as in any soundscape, but what makes this production stand out is the magical tricks Wagrowski employs to create a lake in the middle of Kurt and Martha's living room. The play's most powerful scene is a wordless baptism of guilt and shame, made vivid and striking by use of the sounds of a character stepping into the water, moving through it, splashing and submerging himself in it. The sound is impeccably timed and as beautiful to listen to as a stunningly lit backdrop is to look at.

On the surface, Kurt and Martha are about five weeks from the arrival of their first baby. Their preparations include a lengthy examination of the initial financial investment necessitated by the baby's arrival. One of the longest scenes in a play made of 20 short scenes is an endless itemization of the purchases needed -- from diapers and blankets to bottle warmers and window-bedecked strollers -- and it is the subtext below the surface that is at the heart of the play's meaning. Kroetz's characters never comment on the implications of all this financial focusing, except in their body language and the alternatively tense, elated, frustrated and proud physicality they find impossible to mask as they immerse themselves in real concerns. But Kroetz makes his own comment by pushing his audience toward discomfort with the ceaseless emphasis on capitalistic concerns. Though audiences could easily interpret their discomfort as the play's shortcoming, the uneasy effect is actually what the playwright is after.

The short scenes are unavoidably broken up by numerous blackouts, and Wagrowski's subdued direction leads the cast through lingering ellipses and italicized emphases to punctuate the vignettes. Wagrowski rarely asks for an exclamation point when a caesura will sufficiently fill the space with ominous emptiness. The resulting performances are evocative, demanding and successful. David Millbern and Gillian Marloth animate their characters with earnest innocence, a couple of regular folk trying to be right and raise themselves up to the level their child deserves.

The actors are surprisingly physical, using body affect to tell a story that the words often conceal. Marloth never works with less then two motivations, subtly depicting her own visions and her hopes for her child all the while navigating her husband's complexities. Millbern bristles with energy, but the electricity comes from his restraint, the potential dripping across the stage every bit as threatening as a trail of gasoline leaking toward a match poised for striking. These vivid characters are burned into our memory, ensuring the play's enduring presence in our reserve regions of consciousness.

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