The Curious Theatre Company in Denver is celebrating its 20th anniversary. Having had the privilege and pleasure of reviewing Curious’ shows for the bulk of its existence, I can say without equivocation that I’ve never seen a bad Curious production. The few shows that have failed to fully impress have suffered not from Curious’ presentation but solely from issues with the scripts themselves.
Staying true to its slogan, “No guts, no story,” Curious opens its 2017-2018 season with playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ Appropriate. Jacobs-Jenkins, part wunderkind part enfant terrible, is a much-vaunted darling of today’s theater scene. He’s a self-described pot-stirrer whose plays aim to provoke and incite thought and conversations about issues of racial inequality. Though it features an all-white cast, Appropriate continues Jacobs-Jenkins’ ruminative explication of what it is to be African American in today’s United States.
Thanks to the set work done by scenic designer Markas Henry, lighting designer Richard Devin and props designer Kristian MacFarlane, before Appropriate even begins, the stage establishes itself as the play’s essential ninth character. The first floor of a dilapidated Arkansas plantation home springs to life. Floor-to-ceiling floral wallpaper molders. Some half-full and some overflowing boxes, the former homes of apples, office paper and the like, attest to the hoarder nature of the recently deceased owner of the house and former patriarch of the family. The set establishes the scene so well that you can almost feel the oppressive heat and humidity of an un-air-conditioned Arkansas summer.
The adult siblings of the dead man have arrived to clean out the house so that it may be sold at auction. The eldest, Toni (Dee Covington), and her troubled son, Rhys (Alec Sarche), have been at the task for a week, to little apparent effect. Franz (Sean Scrutchins), the youngest child, shows up unexpectedly with his fiancée, River (Rhianna DeVries), in tow. Soon after, middle child, Bo (Erik Sandvold), and his family — wife Rachel (Mare Trevathan), daughter Cassidy (Audrey Graves) and son Ainsely (Harrison Lyles-Smith) — roll in from their home in New York City.
Faster than you can say “family feud,” Toni, Franz and Bo begin attacking one another in the intimately savage ways only siblings can. On the surface, they are as different as people can be. After their mother died when Franz was just a boy, Toni took over as the family’s matriarch, and she was the only one who provided hands-on care for their father in his final years. The most cosmopolitan of the three, Bo appears to be living the American dream and footed the bill for their father through his decline and death. Franz, the bohemian of the bunch, has been incommunicado for the past decade, leading to speculation from both Toni and Bo about why he has suddenly resurfaced just as the family home is to be sold.
Despite the differences in their lifestyles, Toni, Franz and Bo all suffer from the same victim complex, and much of Appropriate’s runtime is consumed by each shrieking at the other two about why he or she is, in fact, the biggest martyr. Even the discovery of various items that seem clearly to confirm that their dead father was a dyed-in-the-wool racist — something none of the children had the slightest inkling of — can’t derail the carnival of dysfunction.
Director Jamil Jude exhibits a strong hand and solid directorial instincts with Jacob-Jenkins’ beautifully rendered character study, and it is as a character study that Appropriate excels. As a commentary on the insidious nature of racism, particularly white racism against African Americans, Appropriate feels somewhat undercut by its own ambiguity. As an example, when the siblings stumble upon some morally questionable photographs, their first instinct is to destroy them. That instinct eventually gives way to the idea of preserving and selling the photos because they could be worth a large sum of money. It seems clear that Jacobs-Jenkins is using this plotline to portray his characters as at least implicitly, if not overtly, racist, but by not specifying who the buyer might be, he pulls his punch. Selling the photos to a group of neo-Nazis to pass around for laughs paints a different picture than selling them to an African American artist who intends to use them in a multimedia assault on racism itself.
With Appropriate, Curious achieves its goal of bringing timely theater to the Front Range. Appropriate is a mere few lines of dialogue about the desirability of tearing down all Confederate monuments and a George Santayana quote away from truly being “ripped from the headlines.”
On the Bill: Appropriate. Curious Theatre Company, 1080 Acoma St., Denver, www.curioustheatre.org. Through Oct. 14.