Tony gives ‘cow town’ theater boost at 20 years

Denver theater scene jumping in Bonfils Complex

DENVER — The regional theater Tony to the Denver Center Theater Co. came as a boon to a city long bored with knowing a national mind-set considers it a “cow town.” Even a New York Times effort to redress the balance headlined the story, “Cow Town That Acquired High Culture.” The honor put theater on the front pages in Denver and juice in the 20-year-old company’s pride.

Denver piles its theater and music into the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, a multivenue structure on a four-block, 12-acre site. It holds eight theaters, most grandly the 2,834-seat Temple Hoyne Buell Theater, where big touring musicals perform.

The Denver Center Theater Co. is housed in the center’s Helen Bonfils Theater Complex, a striking concrete and glass building that features the 699-seat Stage, the 490-seat Space, the 250-seat Ricketson and the 200-seat Source theaters.

The company opened on New Year’s Eve 1979 with a splashy audience including Lynn Fontanne and Henry Fonda watching a lavish production of Brecht’s “The Caucasian Chalk Circle” with Tyne Daly and Tandy Cronyn. The Tony award comes on the eve of the company’s 20th anniversary.

As one of the best-endowed American regional theaters, drawing on the $110 million Bonfils Foundation (the family fortune comes from the Denver Post), with state-of-the-art technical facilities for costumes and set construction, the company has sought to balance quality of performing, provocative works and distinctive production elements.

The technical department heads worked with artistic director Donovan Marley in California for nearly 20 years before he came to Denver. Marley, who took over from original a.d. Edward Payson Call in 1984, heads a company that now numbers 230 including actors and technicians.

The search for innovative plays has always been a primary concern. In 1985 a festival of 10 plays was presented in a series of readings by company actors. Numerous mainstage productions evolved out of this program, which is being reinstitued this June after a lapse of five years.

Out of these experimental readings came such nationally recognized works as “Quilters,” “The Immigrant,” “Lost Highway,” “Veteran’s Day,” which was performed in London by Jack Lemmon and Michael Gambon under Harold Pinter’s direction, and “The Quick-Change Room.”

In January the company presented the world premiere of “Eliot Ness in Cleveland,” the first original production to emerge from the Harold Prince Musical Theater Program.

The company is also noted for its acclaimed August Wilson productions, directed by Israel Hicks. The nationally recognized local African-American choreographer Cleo Parker Robinson will join with Hicks to produce Derek Walcott’s “Dream on Monkey Mountain” in January 1999.

The upcoming season will also feature the premiere of Nagle Jackson’s “The Elevation of Thieves,” top American winner in the 1997 Onassis Foundation international competition for new plays. Jackson’s “Quick-Change Room” and “Taking Leave” have received world premieres at the DCTC.

The season will offer more nationally popular selections than in previous years, with Steve Martin’s “Picasso at the Lapin Agile,” Alfred Uhry’s “The Last Night of Ballyhoo,” Terrence McNally’s “Master Class” and Moises Kaufman’s “Gross Indecency.”

The company’s gilt-edge bond, its annual seasonal presentation of Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” returns for its ninth season. New productions of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” and Sheridan’s “The Rivals,” which will have music by Peter (PDQ Bach) Schikele, are planned, along with Giles Havergal’s adaptation for four male actors of Graham Greene’s “Travels With My Aunt.”

Ticket prices average $30 at the DCTC, and admissions have been on the upswing, climbing to 154,000 for 1996-97.

Community outreach programs offer subsidized tickets and busing to the theater for high school students. This phase of the educational program is a top priority with the DCTC.

Next up on the agenda is the June TheaterFest, sponsored by US West Communications, which involves 91 actors, 11 playwrights and eight directors in reading of 10 plays.