The Abaire-able lightness of being

BETC and The Dairy are back!

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In Ripcord, two mismatched roommates at an assisted living facility are like oil and water from the get go.
Michael Ensminger

Despite all of its affluence, education and aspirations to cultural relevance, Boulder sometimes struggles with maintaining a vibrant theater scene. The Dairy Arts Center, which is Boulder’s analog to the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, serves as the cornerstone of Boulder theater. With The Dairy unable to host performances for the better part of the past year due to extensive renovations, many theater companies faced significant challenges getting their shows in front of paying customers. Thankfully, The Dairy is once again open for theatrical business.

In mid-September, the Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company (BETC) inaugurated The Dairy’s brand new Grace Gamm Theater in style with Ripcord, the kickoff of BETC’s 11th season and the regional premiere of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and screenwriter David Lindsay-Abaire’s latest play.

Audiences will ooh and ah over the upgrades in the Grace Gamm Theater. The seats are far more comfortable and feature cup holders, the stadium design provides better sight lines all around as well as increased seating capacity, and it even has that “new theater” smell. All of those welcome additions will be quickly forgotten, however, once the curtain goes up on Ripcord. As per usual, BETC’s latest is masterfully crafted and exceptionally entertaining.

Ripcord is essentially an extended episode of a sitcom. If you’re a fan of Friends or a sucker for Seinfeld, you’ll love this riff on The Odd Couple. Set in an assisted living facility, Ripcord centers on two mismatched roommates, Abby (Billie McBride) and Marilyn (Anne Oberbroeckling). Abby, the prickly, terse, cantankerous one, has lived at the facility for four years. For most of that time, she’s enjoyed a solitary, roommate-free existence, but a few weeks prior to the events of the play, Marilyn moved in. Naturally, Marilyn is sunny, talkative and forever optimistic. The two women are oil and water from the get go.

Even though Abby’s taste buds have gone AWOL, Marilyn gets in the kitchen to make her favorite dessert, peach cobbler. Abby growls that it, like everything else, tastes like paste to her. Undeterred, Marilyn ceaselessly tries to engage with Abby, who meets each such attempt with scorn, disdain and a razor sharp tongue. In a classic sitcom development, it doesn’t take long before Abby and Marilyn have made a bet. If Marilyn is able to scare the unflappable Abby, the two will switch beds — giving Marilyn the one closer to the window with the nice view of the park. If Abby can make the placid Marilyn angry first, Marilyn will move into another room leaving Abby once again blissfully alone.

Things escalate quickly and further than the average audience member will expect. No spoilers here, but these two older women are willing to break the laws of decorum — as well as of the state and federal governments — in order to win their bet. One resultant scene hearkens back to Harold and Maude in the most outrageously hilarious way possible.

Though other actors make appearances (Michael Bouchard plays the ladies’ good-natured primary caregiver, Lindsey Pierce and Kevin Lowry play Marilyn’s kooky daughter and son-in-law, and Josh Hartwell plays Abby’s estranged son), Ripcord belongs to Abby and Marilyn, and McBride and Oberbroeckling shoulder the load like the pros they are. With lesser actors in those roles, Ripcord could easily devolve into groan-worthy, sub-sitcom camp, but with these two veteran thespians at work, BETC’s production, which is only the second ever of this new play, delivers loads of laughs along with the odd bit of touching sentiment.

Director Rebecca Remaly not only gets great performances from all of her actors but also nails the technical aspects of Ripcord. Aided by Set Co-Designers Tina Anderson and Ron Mueller, Remaly utilizes a modular set design that quickly and efficiently morphs from Abby and Marilyn’s bedroom to multiple rooms in a haunted house and to the nearby park, among other locales. Faced with the not inconsiderable challenge of how to portray skydiving on stage, Remaly finds some wonderfully creative ways to tackle the task.

The Dairy Arts Center is shiny and new in the best of ways. Whether it’s to take in a performance of Ripcord, to see an independent film or simply to check out the redesign, I can’t encourage you enough to pay it a visit.

On the Bill: Ripcord — presented by BETC. The Dairy Center for the Arts, 2590 Walnut St., Boulder, 303-440-7826, betc.org.  Through Oct. 9. Tickets are $20 and up.