Denver’s theater community is putting the anxiety and tumult of the first weeks of 2017 on stage at a speed suited to a news cycle that is currently in overdrive.
Curious Theatre Company announced Thursday morning that it will produce “Building the Wall,” a new play from Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Robert Schenkkan, whose name you may have seen in the news recently connected with the Oscar-nominated film “Hacksaw Ridge,” which he co-wrote.
On Friday night, Buntport Theater will also open its own show written after Trump’s election, “The Zeus Problem,” also a response of sorts — although in Buntport’s typically offbeat fashion — to the political climate.
“Building the Wall” was written in the weeks after President Donald Trump’s election and before his inauguration — and inserted into the Curious Theatre season schedule in an extraordinary midseason change.
“About a week ago this all started bubbling up, maybe ten days,” says Chip Walton, artistic director of Curious Theatre. After Schenkkan wrote the play, Walton says colleagues began sending him the script.
“Building the Wall,” according to the announcement from Curious, is a show that “looks at a time in the very near future when the Trump administration has carried out his campaign promise to round up and detain millions of immigrants. A writer interviews the supervisor of a private prison as he awaits sentencing for carrying out the federal policy that has escalated into the unimaginable.”
“Multiple people sent me the script,” Walton said, “I think in part knowing that we’re the type of theater that is committed to producing this kind of work, and the type of theater that is maybe nimble enough to say, ‘OK, let’s go, let’s do it.'”
Sure enough, Curious will squeeze the play in, starting during the end of the run of “Constellations,” which opens in March and runs through April 15. The theater will be part of what is called a “rolling world premiere,” which Walton says currently includes a theater in Los Angeles and will likely eventually include at least one other theater. Such a premiere helps new plays get over the hump from being produced in its first theater to being produced in its second, third and fourth, he said.
“The Zeus Problem,” a darkly comedic reimagining of the story of Prometheus Bound, depicts Henry David Thoreau working on his own translation of that story until a main character seizes control of the whole production, according to Buntport member Erin Rollman.
“Zeus derails our play,” she says. “He refuses to leave, he wants everything to be about him. He doesn’t like that in the original production he’s painted in a bad light.”
“He’d like to control the messaging,” Rollman added.
Rollman says the show isn’t explicitly about Trump, and that Jim Hunt, the actor portraying Zeus, bears no resemblance to Trump and makes no effort to imitate him, but that there are some clear parallels. Buntport, which writes most of its shows over the course of four or five weeks, scrapped the script they’d been working on after the election — there were giant pigeons involved — and started anew.
“We might have come in for a whole week and just stared at each other,” Rollman said. “It’s a bit of a blur.” But the process picked up steam.
“Because we write our own shows, and we do so relatively quickly, we thought, ‘We’re one of the companies that can pivot right now — and we should.’ ”
Of Curious’s shift, Rollman says, “I think that’s awesome. That’s hard to do. When you have a set season, the way that they did, it’s extremely hard to throw a whole other production in. And I think that that’s the type of thing that we have to be doing.”
Walton clearly agrees, and has accepted the challenge of taking a lead time for a production that can range from six months to a year and compressing it to two months.
“And we’ve got to find actors,” he says. “Many of the best actors around are committed to other projects already. The thing working in our favor is that so many artists feel so committed to this.”
In some ways, two months also seems far away — especially when you consider the one-protest-per-weekend schedule Denver seems to be on right now. But Walton doesn’t worry much about the public being burned out on politics by the April opening night of “Building the Wall.”
“If we’re fatigued by April, we’re all in trouble,” he says. “This is going to be a long haul.
“I don’t think you can go and march every weekend — I mean, you can, but there is a point at which we need to find other ways, in addition to protesting, in addition to marching, to continue the dialogue, to feed the soul of resistance.”
Late last year, just before the election, Curious hosted a staged reading of “It Can’t Happen Here,” a play based on Sinclair Lewis’s 1936 satiric novel.
And in just a few weeks, Buntport Theater is reviving its 2003 play, “The 30th of Baydak,” a look at dictatorship in Turkmenistan, for a staged reading on Feb. 20.
“The Zeus Problem” runs at Buntport Feb. 3-25.
“Building the Wall” will run at Curious April 4-19.