Editor's Note: During the next few days, Nina Rolle, an artist and Naropa University meditation instructor, will present her unique viewpoint in the form of reviews of shows at the Boulder International Fringe Festival. Read more here.
A first for the Boulder International Fringe Festival, this year’s festival hosts to two productions by local high school theater groups: 25 Square Miles Surrounded by Reality — a comedic survival guide to living in Boulder, Colo., by Boulder High School Theatre, and Alex & Themselves by a New Vista High School ensemble. On the opening night of the Fringe, these two inventive and thoroughly entertaining plays were presented back to back in the Dairy Center’s East Theater. The audience was full of parents, but you don’t need to be a Boulder parent to put these two shows on your Fringe list. Both plays deal with living in a dream world. 25 Square Miles Surrounded by Reality is a sardonic look at life inside the Boulder Bubble, and Alex & Themselves takes place in a fictitious world with closely guarded gates keeping outsiders out — and insiders in.
A riff on the 2008 New York Times article of the same title, 25 Square Miles Surrounded by Reality follows the acclimatization process of Tom, a Boston transplant payed by Denzel Samaniego. His survival education, guided by an invisible Narrator (Talia Kracauer), begins with the presentation of a map that consists of bike paths, half a dozen Whole Foods, and the mountains. Tom’s first lesson is that there is no such thing as the direction “west” in Boulder; we say “the mountains.”
From there, 25 Square Miles touches on every Boulder stereotype imaginable. From the stoner on the creek path to Buddhists, baristas, hipsters and hippies, a café where an emotionally unstable Naropa student brings her own yerba maté, the Environmental Police who appear like ninjas when Tom dares to throw away a soda can in the trash, and a yoga class with a self-serious yoga instructor named Willow and some spot-on comic acting by Kelsea Dionne as the germophobic Shelly. The funniest bit of writing is the scene where Tom gets schooled on Boulder’s bicycle culture, learning that we observe a strict hierarchy of transportation, and regardless of the circumstances, bicycles always have the right-of-way.
Talia Kracauer’s voiceover provides a strong framework for the show, but the acerbic tone wears thin as the show goes on. Just when I couldn’t take the chirpy self-parody of the Narrator one more second, she effectively turned comically bossy and demanding, browbeating poor Tom into talking to strangers on the bus, bowing down to the bus driver, or dressing up in humiliating bike gear.
The students shine most in the scenes that touch on serious subjects, such as teen pregnancy and drug addiction, rather than poking fun at their hometown. Megan Flett delivers an honest and simple monologue about divorce, while painting her toenails, and in the play’s strongest scene, Nate Getz and Ellen Arkfeld give a direct and understated eulogy of gay suicides in their high school. The language here is particularly artful, and the acting is emotionally raw and real.
Despite excessive blackouts and an unimaginative set consisting of clunky black building blocks, the show keeps a swift pace with a run crew as tightly choreographed as an Indie 500 pit crew.
Directed by Amanda Berg Wilson and Joan Bruemmer, New Vista Ensemble’s Alex & Themselves relies more on movement, mood, and visual composition than on plotline. The play opens on an elegant set — a white bed, a table with a white tablecloth and white painted chairs, and a pile of vintage steamer trunks stage left. A steam punk redhead (Josie Brown as Marie) with shredded sleeves, fishnets and goggles enters and plays an overture on an electric keyboard upstage while the extravagantly costumed ensemble enters and creates a tableau. A belly dancer (Lorien Russell) slinks in with sinewy, snakelike movements and the music morphs into a circus waltz. The other characters cannot see her. The scene is otherworldly, abstract, and stylish: a place out of time.
We soon learn that the town these characters inhabit closed its gates to the outside world 18 years ago. Since that time nobody has entered or left. Coincidentally, our endearing heroine, Calla Lily (Camille Libouban-Gundersen) is celebrating her 18th birthday. She has finished school and wants to go to college, but her eccentric and controlling mother, Madame Cage (Tizri Eleanor Zelig) forbids it. This, of course, strengthens Calla Lily’s resolve: She wants out.
A disjointed story, long on imagery and short on coherence, unspools from there. A professor dances in a tutu and then serves chocolate cake. Is Marie hot for Calla Lily? The belly dancer weaves in and out of the action, one moment snake charmer, one moment lethal dance partner. Twenty minutes into the play, Professor Stone (Sage Dart) gives a cryptic explanation of who the mysterious Alex is: a girl betrayed by one she trusted, who might be called by another name. She can commune with the dead. She speaks without words and feels other people’s feelings.
Anja Hose’s lighting design creates a magical environment where anything can happen, and the sound score supports that dreamlike quality, alternating between Josie Brown on piano and a recording of Beethoven’s moonlight sonata.
The Ensemble delivers some strong performances, some jarring and cringe-worthy screaming, some unnecessary sobbing, as well as plenty of truly grounded moments of good acting, most notably by Sage Dart as the warm and empathetic, if odd, professor. The best line of the play is spoken by Madison Scarlotti as Briar in one of those moments when a minor character brings the house down with one line. “I have to go. I have to fetch some … nut butter for my mother.” What? Exactly. As the New Vista Ensemble’s promo slogan claims: Confusion never killed anyone. Yet.
If you go: Alex & Themselves plays at the East Theatre at the Dairy Center for the Arts on Friday, Aug. 26, at 5 p.m. and Saturday, Aug. 27, at 6:30 p.m. Tickets are $12, $8 for students. 2590 Walnut St., Boulder, 303-440-7826.
25 Square Miles plays at the East Theatre at the Dairy Center for the Arts on Thursday, Aug. 25, at 6 p.m.; Friday, Aug. 26, at 9:30 p.m.; and Saturday, Aug. 27, at 3:30 p.m. Tickets are $8, $6 for students.