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Racing the clock in a world premiere production

There's something so natural about the HorseChart Theatre company production of O.T. It makes you wonder why nobody ever thought of staging a play at the free throw line.

If you didn't know better, you'd think this beer swilling cast of characters had turned the Denver Civic Theater into their own alumni frat house. What's so hard about a bunch of good ol' boys drinking beer and shooting hoops?

Don't be fooled. There's a secret behind the success of this young Denver theater company. In the words of the immortal thespian John Lovitz, the secret is "Acting!"

O.T. is gripping theater, and the small stage, surrounded on three side by "stadium seating" intensifies the action unfolding on the stage. The play follows the character Tres as he plays one-on-one against his repressed prejudice, caught in a full-court press between the friends he grew up with and the ingrained racial mores of Dallas on one hand and his girlfriend from Chicago on the other.

The catalyst for the action is Tres' "Big Brother" type relationship with an inner-city African American teenager. Much of the action takes place on the basketball court, and playwright Clay Nichols makes excellent use of the device of live action hoops as characters shoot baskets and play pick-up games, bringing the play's central metaphor to life in a way rarely achieved on the stage.

Without resorting to a grandiose large scale race war, Nichols deftly manages to uncover the subtle, built-in prejudices and racial tension that continue to tangle the social fabric of our times. If anything, Elizabeth, Tres' girlfriend, is a little too pure as the voice of reason from the north. Nevertheless, her discomfort around Tres' friends and her assertion that if she remains silent while they spew racial epithets--even "just in fun"--implicates her in their thought crimes.

O.T. explores the gray area of individual relationships and perspectives on race, and Aune does a remarkable job of leading his cast through the nuances of long-standing friendships that look old-guard and ugly from the visiting stands. Chris Reid as Tres is the ultimate man in the middle, a decent young professional trying to overcome his identity. Reid's performance is a little overstated in a production thriving on naturalism, but no moment of the character's suffering is left to the audience's imagination.

Stephen Cosgrove is solid in a supporting role, bringing depth and warmth to Fuzzy, a sports barfly who is rarely seen without a fistful of Budweiser. J.K. Palmer's Nick teams with Fuzzy to create some complex characters. When the old boys start falling into marriages, it's an unfamiliar balance to maintain their life-long camaraderie while allowing themselves the possibility of continued evolution. Fuzzy and Nick possess the vital ingredient so often lacking in less-carefully created characters: they are able to change. There are no sudden eureka transformations, however. Just Cosgrove's and Palmer's intensity and respect for their roles, taking the characters through the grueling process of slowly shedding ones skin and exposing raw nerve ends while growing a new one.

Don Murphy and Donald Ryan are equally convincing as the rigidly clinging characters of Will and Dub, and Michelle Norman and Kimberly Payetta are both strong in what amount to supporting roles as Dianne and Elizabeth. Payetta's performance has no shortcomings, but the character could stand some further development. Nichols has a nack for creating multi-dimensional characters, but his women seem to be a little more fixed. Elizabeth is angelic, virtuous, and perceptive, almost to a fault. If she had any of the human frailties that Tres is cluttered with, she would be better equipped as a teammate working through the new challenges Tres is faced with.

One of the show's strongest performances comes from Quatis "Que" Tarkington as Pip, the young hoop dreamer that Tres mentors throughout the show. There's no question the play is set in a white world, but Nichols makes Pip a strong character, independent of the uses the other characters may have for him. The play's key transition takes place when Pip is injured by Tres' knee-jerk regression to the black and white world he was raised in. When Pip's fate becomes his own, stepping out of the shadow of merely being a foil for Tres, the play rises to a new level.

Tarkington's textured performance bristles with the electricity of subtext. His ability to play a range of emotions and adolescent posturing without needing to fully reveal the character's extensive inner motivation succeeds in both letting the audience into his world as well as highlighting the line beyond which they may not enter.

HorseChart Theatre has shown themselves equally capable of honoring the classics with their production earlier this year of Arthur Miller's A View from the Bridge as well as establishing vital new work like Clay Nichols' intense exploration of racial tensions. Their commitment to quality plays with significant subject matter is laudable, and the energy they are bringing to the Denver theater scene is vibrant and essential.

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