There are few regional theaters that are successful and well-enough endowed to maintain a resident company of 20 actors, four directors, and three designers, but the Denver Center Theatre Company is one exception.
For their contribution to American theater, the company has been awarded this year's prestigious Tony Award for Outstanding Regional Theatre. The award will be presented June 7 at Radio City Music Hall in New York.
Under the direction of Donovan Marley, the DCTC has come of age. Members of the DCTC actually make a decent living in the mile-high city. They own homes, keep their kids in school, and still get out to do the odd gig in movies, commercials, or New York theater in the off-season.
The award comes at a good time. The Tony was recommended by the American Theatre Critics Association. Coincidentally, ATCA meets this week in Denver for its annual confab, and knowing for more than a year that the critics were coming, almost the entire Denver theater community has decked itself out in its Sunday finery.
Three world premires greet the critics at the DCTC's stages in the Denver Performing Arts Complex: Taking Leave, a play by award-winning playwright Nagle Jackson; Life Is a Dream, an adaptation by the 17th-century Spanish master Pedro Caldern de la Barca; and an experimental transmutation of Cervantes's Don Quixote, by Polish director Pavel Dobrusky.
The three plays are thematically linked, though vastly different in style and intent. All three deal with the ephemeral nature of reality, distinguishing between what is real and what is imagined. What may seem normal to one person may seem mad to another.
"Taking Leave" is based on the playwright's own experience as caregiver to his aging mother. The three daughters of an ailing professor meet in his home to decide what to do for (or with) him. One sister wants to find a good nursing home, one refuses to believe he needs that much care, and the third offers a unique solution.
The professor, who is failing mentally, had once been a distinguished Shakespearean scholar, and references to "King Lear" run in counterpoint throughout the play. But this witty play is no tragedy, nor is it merely a maudlin "disease-of-the-week" exercise. Without trivializing a difficult problem, the play forcefully reminds the viewer of the professor's personhood. Entering with him into his world of pleasant illusions, the youngest daughter finds the redemptive truth for her own life.
In Calderon's elegant "Life Is a Dream," a king has rejected his infant son, having him brought up as a chained beast in the wilds because omens at his birth portended evil of him. Stricken with guilt, however, the king relents and has the prince brought home to the palace - where the young man behaves just as his father had feared.
The prince is then drugged, taken back to his chains in the wilderness, and told when he awakens that it was all a dream. Realizing that all experience is really a dream, and that one could still choose to live through it with honor, dignity, and charity, he is transformed. Given a second chance, the young man ultimately determines who he will be.
Like all the best resident theater companies in America, the DCTC has offered a mix of classic and modern plays, commercial hits, and experimental esoterica - the stuff that brings in new ideas, keeps actors and designers on their toes, and generally opens windows to other worlds. Such is Mr. Dobrusky's lavish and bizarre take on Cervantes's 17th-century tale of a mad old man in search of knightly deeds and heroic adventures.
Close to the original, this version is nothing like "Man of LaMancha." Littered with books, the set focuses on the power of the written word to invoke realities within fictions. The production embraces Don Quixote's illusions as a central metaphor for the wisdom of folly: The old man's ideals are better than the world he lives in, and he is nobler and kinder than all those who think themselves sane and yet are selfish and petty.
It's a fitting lineup for a house full of critics, every one of whom is practiced at "willing suspension of disbelief." The realities that the theater illumine come to us almost as dreams - and certainly as illusions. Sorting through them is every critic's job.