Middle East in Middle West 

World's a stage for CC grads

When a local musical offers too much ham, and dinner theater provides further gastrointestinal obstacles, then it's time to hike up I-25 for something that could be referred to as "edgy," if that word had not been pummeled into semantic bankruptcy.

Given its vaguely industrial location on the corner of Seventh Avenue and Lipan Street, The Buntport Theater might look more fit for a metal-stamping plant. Instead, one finds a hipster-esque theater space with a couch in the foyer, two facing rows of seats and a firm impression that it won't look the same upon your next visit.

Six Colorado College graduates created the Buntport Theater, which opened at its current location in June 2001. The Earth's Sharp Edge is their 18th production, a theatricalized travelogue based in part on Thaddeus Phillips' recent experience in the Middle East and his tribulations with U.S. customs officials. The performance incorporates a frenetic East-meets-West soundtrack, simple props, film footage and lighting. What's so admirable is that these elements are exploited not in an ostentatious manner, or to merely flex the creative muscles of the theater's collective, but to add another layer of ideas, experience and visual appeal.

In a moment's notice the austere stage -- which is really just the concrete floor -- transforms into: a bustling street market, a U.S. Customs interrogation room, a Casablanca hotel suite, and the cabin and cockpit of a hijacked TWA flight. The cast members play numerous characters and could give Elton John a running for the alacrity of their costume changes.

The audience is also treated to an Arab lesson by the wonderfully charismatic Muni Kulasinghe, in addition to a stewardess-training seminar with some hilariously antiquated sexual politics.

Scenes of home video shot in an unspecified Arab country -- the proverbial Arab street-- pulse on the monitors along with correlative scenes from the film Casablanca and titles providing sardonic commentary.

For those whose attention spans have been diminished by MTV aesthetics, but whose brains have not, The Earth's Sharp Edge provides a happy medium. With a total of six television monitors suspended from the ceiling, there's rarely a moment when there's only one character or action to consider, an experience that I imagine mirrors the novice American abroad in the Arab world.

For narrative expedience, Phillips uses scenes from his interrogation by U.S. customs officials as a means to diverge into his travels in Morocco, Yemen and elsewhere. Every foreigner he encounters is somehow aware that Colfax Avenue is the world's largest uninterrupted commercial street.

For reasons that are never entirely clear, Phillips' story intersects with a femme fatale Palestinian hijacker, Leila Khaled. Phillips becomes smitten in a literary-historical sort of way with this 1970s terrorist through a book he is reading on "extreme Islam." Not surprisingly, this obsession provides fodder for his relentless interrogators. I can't help but speculate that the whole element was merely an excuse to pay homage to the '70s radical chic oeuvre.

Unfortunately, the Buntport's creative energy with sets and music is not matched with a more thorough thematic exploration. It may be true that mini-skirted '70s Marxist terrorists are preferable -- both politically and aesthetically -- to the butt-ugly mullahs of Osama and company, but it does not necessarily translate into compelling theater. Phillips flirts with telling Khaled's story, particularly the cult of personality the British media created during her trial, but never quite weaves it into Phillips' own, or into contemporary relevance.

It's difficult to pinpoint what Phillips is commenting on aside from the fact that some hijackers can be hot, and that terrorism has taken the innocence out of cross-cultural education. These ideas are not quite enough to carry the show. That said, the nonstop spectacle of transforming objects, light, music and space with scenes of humor and pathos is an adequate compensation. With dinner, it's worth I-25's drudgery.


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