Too often, too easily, necessity gets a bad rap as the unwed mother of invention. Especially in the world of the theater, spare, minimal and experimental are heard as code words for low-budget, under-prepared and poorly conceived theater. Do not make the mistake of confusing that kind of theater with the exemplary work coming out of Buntporte Theater.
Buntporte has remounted their original work Quixote, performed at Smokebrush and at Colorado College last spring and summer, for an enthralling new production at The Denver Civic Theatre. It seems unfathomable that a play based on Cervantes' literary tome, claiming to be a satire of academia, could end up being a play whose star is its set and its "special effects," especially considering the company's challenge of staging the piece entirely with no props or set pieces other than chalk, chalkboards and erasers.
Nevertheless, the Quixote's innovative incorporation of simple set pieces is every bit as boggling as the fully functioning helicopters, underground waterways and suspended mansions of recent mega-musicals. Even the black-clad cast of Quixote frequently become animated chalk boards, incorporating themselves into impromptu sketches and making canvases out of their entire bodies.
Among the simpler effects created with three identical, rolling blackboards is the feat of linking the boards to make the chugging cars of a passenger train; flipping the board on its axis, perpendicular to its normal state, and using it as a counter; or standing it on its end to make a revolving door. More advanced techniques include lining up the boards beside each other and setting them all spinning on their axis to create the effect of a windmill for Don Quixote and his fatty squire Sancho to attack. The three boards are lined up so they are parallel to the floor and touching each other, and are then undulated with an actor at either end to create the effect of a rolling sea. A landscape scene, drawn on a board is slowly moved past actors, seated as though in a car, to give the illusion of the car's movement past the countryside. And using the board as a partial screen, action is suggested by pairs of legs seen interacting beneath the board, heads popping out above it and various body parts humorously reaching out from either side.
The use of props is equally inventive. The actors use a stick of chalk as a cigarette in one scene, complete with a pair of actors clapping erasers together to depict the smoke. In another scene, a fight ends with a character's teeth being knocked out as broken bits of chalk tumble out of his mouth. Smaller, handheld chalkboards become masks, one with a hastily drawn eye and nose serving to disguise a character. The fluidity of a chalk-based set also enables the quick-draw creation of an island on the black floor of the stage, populated with equally quick fish sketches.
The Denver Civic Theatre has long been used for one company or another to indulge their experimental vision at spare rates in front of a minimal audience. Too often, however, these untested ideas wallow in dark, belabored interpretations that construct an impenetrable wall of obfuscation between artist and audience. Buntporte bucks tradition by infusing their production with the upbeat energy so often missing from experimental theater, filling the stage not only with a vibrant volley of ideas but with a stream of fast-paced, carefully choreographed action.
The production is funnier, more creative and more sophisticated than one has the right to expect from such a young company satirizing the previously limited target of academia. The trump card is the versatile ensemble cast, a seasoned troupe who never relent in their mission to captivate the audience.
Equally appealing to audiences looking for literary allusions as well as Laurel and Hardy references, Quixote is well worth the trip to Denver. See it and delight in the continued success of this Springs-born company.