Like the political atmosphere in America today, where the facade of moral righteousness is used to marginalize the human and ecological toll of our empire, so the City Beautiful movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries served as an aesthetic mask for the imperial rumblings, corrupt political machines and social unrest of the time. Such were the conditions in the rough-and-ready streets of Denver depicted in this adventuresome pastiche of melodrama, history and social commentary.
The principal playwright from 1970 to 2000 for San Francisco Mime Troupe, Joan Holden is now at her best adapting the political incisiveness of guerilla theater to the legit stage. A far cry from the in-your-face agit-prop that surfaced in response to the war in Vietnam, here her script melds a class-conscious view of labor and capital with compassionate observations of those attempting to govern the often irreconcilable interests of their constituents.
The script was undergoing revisions right up to the final rehearsal. While Holden’s experience and skill is evident in her ability to cull drama from the specifics of history and biography, the multitudinous facts, subplots and characters that form the fabric of Denver’s history are at times too much to comprehend. Judicious editing and more distinctive costuming and makeup could deliver a stronger dramatic arc.
Denver has constantly reinvented itself to survive, and Holden captures this spirit in the character of Mayor Robert Speer, who ruled the Queen City of the Plains from 1904 to 1912 and, again, from 1916 until his death in 1918. Democrat Speer’s marriage of convenience with Republican business magnate Wm. G. Evans is depicted with particular insight in a series of conversations that reveal, despite the seeming diversion of their public posturing, the mutual economic interests of the men and their respective supporters; so much for the “two-party system.”
The particulars of Speer’s reign are the stuff of legends. He seized and maintained power through rigged elections, holding together a coalition of interests that included organized crime, labor and the city’s wealthy businessmen. No hard sell was required (or given) to effectively communicate to the audience the parallels with today’s national powerbrokers.
Yet Speer was not content to simply line the pockets of his friends. Like his modern mayoral successors in this city, beginning with Federico Pena, who asked the voters to “imagine a great city,” he exacted taxes and contributions to redesign and beautify Denver, leaving a legacy of public works including the Civic Center, tree-lined greenways and boulevards and the city’s famous mountain park system.
The kaleidoscopic effect of covering so much ground limits memorable characterizations to a fleeting few. The eight-member ensemble does yeoman work reinventing themselves at the drop of a hat in 30 roles that represent a mix of historical and fictional figures.
Director Chip Walton combines a melodramatic look and feel with selected doses of Brechtian realism to deliver Holden’s biting, satirical moments and rewarding realizations. The entertainment is diluted, however, by occasional intrusions of historical recitation, telegraphed pronouncements and sidebars in need of gleaning. The conceit of a play-within-a-play, referred to in one early scene, unnecessarily confuses the story and could be easily jettisoned.
Michael R. Duran’s design and Susan Crabtree’s elegant shading and perspective on the painted scenery, replete with a marvelous period facsimile proscenium and curtain depicting an early vista of Denver City, has us imagining gas footlights illuminating the actors, while David Dunbar’s whiz-bang live ragtime accompaniment completes the atmosphere.
Though offering an astute perspective on local history, with a little work “Paris on the Platte” could, much like the 1939 pic “Streets of New York,” provide a seamless universal critique of the corrupt political and social behaviors that Americans nationwide have grown to accept at all levels of governance, and thus serve as an effective metaphor at any theater in the country.