Reviews: Other Desert Cities and Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson 

Last weekend, I took in two new theater shows in Colorado Springs. Since both run for at least one more weekend, we present some thoughts on whether each is worth your time and money.

Other Desert Cities

Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz said it best: "Once a writer is born into a family, that family is doomed."

There's more than a grain of truth in there. Writers are neurotic and self-absorbed, and if that family harbors any secrets, you can bet they won't stay secret for long.

That's the situation faced by the Wyeth family in Jon Robin Baitz's brilliant Other Desert Cities, making its Colorado premiere at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center.

Nominally this 2012 Pulitzer finalist is a drama, but I almost hate to call it that because there's so much humor in it. The dialogue sparkles with wit, and in the character of Brooke, Baitz nails that peculiar creature known as The Writer.

As the play begins, Brooke has returned to her parents' palatial Palm Springs home for Christmas. Her second book is about to be published, but she's strangely reluctant to talk about it.

The reason soon becomes clear. The book isn't a novel, as she's been telling everyone, but a highly revealing memoir about the family. And the Wyeths aren't just any family.

Brooke's older brother Henry was a drug addict who'd been implicated in the bombing of a military recruiting center and committed suicide as the feds were closing in on him. Parents Polly and Lyman always maintained there was nothing they could have done, but in her memoir, Brooke lays all the blame on them and their moralizing, right-wing attitudes.

Director Scott RC Levy took some real risks with the casting, but it's paid off with some of the best performances I've seen all season.

Brooke is played by Kate Berry, a highly accomplished actress who turns in an intimately observed portrait of a young woman still shell-shocked from the collapse of her marriage. Local favorite Leah Chandler-Mills is Polly, a dyed-in-the-wool conservative who's worked hard to rebuild her life after their very public scandal and isn't about to let it be torn apart again.

"You wrote this because you expect an apology, don't you?" Polly asks Brooke. With her moral rectitude and relentless needling, Polly could have easily been dashed off as a stereotype, but Chandler-Mills wraps her character in a brittle shell that allows us to glimpse her fragility.

Lyman is played by Daniel Noel, a big bear of a guy whose honey-coated voice seduces as it cajoles. A movie-star-turned-politico, Lyman strives to cultivate an image of gentility and decorum, and when that's threatened, he reacts the only way he knows how: by burying his head in the sand.

Caught in the middle is youngest son Trip, played by Sammy Gleason in a rare dramatic role. A TV reality show producer, Trip tosses off wisecracks as a shield; but when pushed to take sides, he explodes with a frightening intensity.

Birgitta De Pree is Polly's sister Silda, a recovering alcoholic who recently moved in so that Polly can watch over her — an arrangement neither embraces. De Pree is an accomplished actress, and if you only know her from her appearances as the sassy, English-challenged Babette at the Millibo Art Theatre, you're in for a delightful surprise.

"Polly threatened never to talk to me again," Brooke frets shortly after her mother reads her memoir.

"Really?" Silda replies. "I'd take that deal in a goddamn minute."

Christopher Sheley's set is a work of art, bringing the Wyeth living room to life with a high vaulted ceiling, two tons of decorative stone and towering windows that gaze out on the lights of those "other desert cities." It's gorgeous, and yet in its sterile perfection we can sense the oppressiveness that Brooke must feel there.

Accusations are made, and secrets revealed. But as you'd expect from a play with storytelling at its core, the real pivot point is perfectly placed — a veritable nuclear bomb that goes off in the second act.

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson

Andrew Jackson was a lot of things. Frontiersman. War hero. President. But it took Alex Timbers and Michael Friedman to turn him into a rock star. They're the creators of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, the irreverent rock musical that had a brief 2010 run on Broadway but has since developed something of a cult following.

This month, TheatreWorks is taking its stab at it. It's the company's annual student show, produced each March in partnership with the Department of Visual and Performing Arts at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. The university provides the cast, TheatreWorks the set, costumes and director.

Directed by assistant professor of theatre Kevin Landis, this production is a rowdy good time. If the music sometimes lacks punch, the student performers more than make up for it with their manic energy and campy, over-the-top humor. In fact, I haven't heard an audience laugh so hard or so often in a long time.

An always-charming Lynne Hastings gets the craziness started as the Storyteller, cruising out on her electric scooter to lead us through Jackson's early years with the breathless excitement of an adoring fangirl.

It was a violent time, she tells us, and the newly established United States faced three bitter enemies: the British, the Spanish and — most hated of all — the Indians. Yet in those days of Manifest Destiny, every red-blooded American knew time was on our side.

"This land is our land," Andrew's father tells his young son. "And even the land that isn't our land is going to be our land."

With his guyliner, tousled hair and ripped skinny jeans, Omíd Dastán Harrison embodies Jackson as an emo boy. Though not physically imposing, Harrison exudes a cocky swagger and sheer sexual confidence that allow him to command the stage and, at times, the entire house.

At one point, he leaps off the stage to approach one unsuspecting audience member. "How would you like to see my stimulus package?" he says, thrusting his pelvis at her.

Jackson's astonishing military success leads him all the way to the White House, though not until after he's had his first Electoral College win stolen from him by the moneyed interests that ruled Washington. This is all explained in the "The Corrupt Bargain," an ensemble song that crams a college lecture's worth of history into three insanely catchy verses. John Calhoun, Henry Clay and John Quincy Adams all make appearances here, but it's Erik Brevik, a long-haired Russell Brand look-alike, who steals the scene by playing Martin Van Buren as a pot-bellied, Twinkie-loving twit.

Friedman's punk-flavored score is filled with youthful defiance and smart-ass wit. But the student voices are not uniformly strong. And the four-piece band, though technically impeccable, skews more jazzy than punk, robbing the songs of much of their power.

Vance McKenzie's lighting is dynamic without being obtrusive, while Roy Ballard's set is a glorious eyeful, a rambling western streetfront that opens into a theater decked out with patriotic bunting and a generous array of stuffed animal heads. But its most dramatic feature is a runway that juts straight out from the stage, splitting the audience in two and giving Harrison ample room to strut his stuff.

The show may play fast and loose with some historical facts, but it gets the big things right, and it doesn't shy away from the controversies that plague Jackson's legacy today, particularly his forced exile of the Indians to the West.

American hero or American Hitler? The show refuses to draw a definitive conclusion. But one thing's for sure. No president ever looked so good in a pair of skinny jeans.



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