Over the past 10-and-a-half years, I have seen numerous theater companies rise and fall in Boulder. While perennial favorites like Boulder’s Dinner Theatre have triumphed year in and year out, other companies have sprouted, blossomed, withered and died. Staying power, it seems, is as hard to come by in theater as it is in any of life’s other endeavors. (Unless, of course, you’re Ron Jeremy. Get well soon, big guy.)
It is for that reason that I cannot sing loudly enough the praises of the Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company (BETC). Founded just five years ago, BETC immediately announced itself as an up-and-comer to be watched. BETC quickly proved its worth by choosing challenging, enlivening material and producing it deftly and successfully. It is happily and without hesitation then that I declare BETC to be one of the absolute best theater companies working in Boulder today.
BETC’s current show, Ghost- Writer, is one of its finest. This is the second play written by Michael Hollinger that BETC has brought to the Dairy, and clearly Mr. Hollinger’s work fits glove-like on BETC’s proverbial hand. Having seen BETC’s An Empty Plate in the Café du Grand Boeuf and Curious Theatre’s version of Opus, Mr. Hollinger’s voice was instantly recognizable in Ghost-Writer, his most complex and rewarding play in my experience.
In 1919 New York, an author dies. As Franklin Woolsey (Jim Hunt) dictates his latest novel to his longtime typist and collaborator, Myra Babbage (Laura Norman), he pauses mid-sentence, never to speak again. At least not out loud. In the days following his funeral, Myra begins seemingly to channel Woolsey, working to finish his final tome from beyond the tomb.
As Myra cranks out chapter after chapter, Vivian Woolsey (Anne Sandoe), the author’s widow, balances grief with incredulity. Her desire to believe something of her husband lives on crashes against her logical mind, one that dismisses séances and Ouija boards as charlatans’ tools. The niggling possibility that her beloved could still be in contact with the living world but choosing only to commune with Myra gnaws at her. In the end, her conflicted emotions lead her to hire an investigator to observe Myra and deduce whether she is a fraud sullying Franklin’s good name or something … else.
Despite the presences of Franklin and Vivian, Ghost-Writer is effectively a one-woman show. As Myra recounts her history working for Woolsey — both before and after his death — to the audience standing in for Vivian’s investigator, she takes part in every scene. For much of the play, Jim Hunt as Woolsey must stand silent and motionless in the background — no easy task itself — as Norman’s Myra recounts their past or works to finish his final tale. Sandoe’s Vivian, though a presence throughout, joins the others on stage only a handful of times. Playing Myra for the second time, Norman becomes the character with graceful ease.
A deceptively layered play, Ghost-Writer may be seen by many in its audience to be a simple, albeit nuanced, story about the fairly commonplace relationships among Franklin, Vivian and Myra. Look deeper, though, and Ghost-Writer proves a puzzle box or, perhaps, an onion. After all, when each layer is peeled back another is revealed, and in the end many a viewer will find him or herself in tears. Truly, this is a play that benefits from multiple viewings.
Given a few of Hollinger’s choices, most notably his decision to use an exchange between Woolsey and Myra to blatantly call attention to the subtextual cleverness of the play’s title, I felt certain that he must have penned Ghost-Writer prior to either An Empty Plate or Opus. As with my prediction that American Idol wouldn’t last a season, I was dead wrong. Ghost-Writer is Hollinger’s latest work, and in light of its delicate yet formidable narrative structure, it may come to be considered one of his best.
With Ghost-Writer, Director Josh Hartwell, Norman, Hunt, Sandoe and the rest of BETC’s crew have crafted a haunting piece of theatrical brilliance. Viewed only on its surface or delved into deeply, Ghost-Writer will leave you counting the days until BETC’s next offering.
Ghost-Writer, produced by the Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company, plays through Feb. 16 at the Dairy Center for the Arts. Tickets are $19-$25. For tickets or information, visit www.boulderensembletheatre.org or call 303-444-7328.