Hello…and Goodbye

imagesIt’s been a week of beginnings and endings on the theatre front here in Denver.

On the one hand, I witnessed the start of the national tour of Peter and the Starcatcher, an event which was pretty joyful and made me feel good (for once) about the state of commercial theatre in this country. On the other hand, I experienced the demise of a small theatre company that’s been producing shows in Denver for 40 years. Watching Germinal Stage‘s production of Peter Handke’s Offending the Audience was both poignant and torturous.

First, a few words about Peter. What’s remarkable about Rick Elice’s loose dramatic adaptation of a 2004 prequel to the classic children’s story Peter Pan by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson is that it’s a play. It’s not a musical. I don’t think I can recall the last time that Broadway produced a truly successful tour of a non-musical work that had no name recognition to it. It’s one thing to tour a Pulitzer Prize-winning show with famous actors in it, and quite another to run around the country with a production that has a young ensemble cast and only the slackest of ties to anything that people might recognize (the Peter Pan narrative.)

The show holds its own from start to finish with its inventive use of simple props (yellow rubber kitchen gloves become flapping birds; a ship and ocean waves are represented by lengths of rope…), brilliant comedic acting — perhaps most ostentatiously by John Sanders as the malign and misguided pirate Black Stache — and rhythmic writing that never ceases to tickle the eardrums.

I expect Peter and the Starcatcher will entrance audiences all over the country, as it did in New York and at the La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego where it launched in 2009. Much of its box office success will probably come from word of mouth and strong reviews owing to the lack of name recognition and the fact that it’s a play rather than a musical.

At the opposite end of the scale, this weekend was the end of the line for the Germinal Stage. The choice of Handke’s obsessive 1966 meta-theatrical treatise on the nature of reality and artifice and life and death served as a fitting swan song for the organization, not only because of the poignant theme but also because the production involved a cast of 43 actors, many of whom seemed to be drawn from the company’s own community of friends and family. Each cast member was wearing a sign around his/her neck with his/her name on it and the year in which the actor first attended or otherwise experienced a Germinal show. Some of the signs had dates going way back to the 1970s and 80s.

It was odd for me, as someone who’s just turned up in Denver and was attending this theatre for the first time, to witness this organization’s finale. The play itself is a bold choice: Handke’s writing is didactic. There is no plot or characters. The actors all wear their street clothes and the house lights are on for almost the whole one hour and fifteen minute showtime. There’s nowhere  to hide and the experience of sitting through the piece, feeling like it’s never going to end, is sort of disconcerting because you also know that when it finally does end, it’s curtains for Germinal Stage. When the lights go off, they will go off forever and no more actors will  tread those boards.

I felt bad for struggling through Handke’s treatise. But that’s just the point. The play, excrutiatingly dull and badly delivered as it is by Germinal’s voluminous, self-conscious cast, is meant to make you feel ill at ease. I left the theatre feeling a curious mixture of ecstatic relief that the play was over and mild sadness that I wouldn’t get the chance  to see more of this company’s work.

Success is fleeting and nothing lasts forever. I leave you with the final lines of Handke’s play, which were delivered by the theatre’s founder and artistic director, Ed Baierlein, whom I hear is retiring. The sale of the auditorium, the director’s nest egg, will help to provide some measure of financial security for his future.

You ladies and gents you,
you celebrities of public and cultural life you,
you who are present you,
you brothers and sisters you,
you comrades you,
you worthy listeners you,
you fellow humans you.
You were welcome here. We thank you.
Good night.

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