It’s been 21 years since the death of JonBenét Ramsey; 21 years since her body was found in the basement of her Boulder home. In all that time one would hope she’d have found some peace from her resting place in northern Georgia.
But the ghost of JonBenét lives on, the haunting image of the blue-eyed, blonde-haired girl in a cowgirl costume still popping up on the cover of magazines in newsstands around the country, staring out like an otherworldly reminder of the macabre end of one family’s American dream.
Her story and the enduring media frenzy it inspired calls us to gawk, time and time again, when offered the chance. Like a car wreck on the highway, it’s as if in simply driving past the spectacle we are somehow complicit.
It was the phenomenon of society’s fascination that first attracted playwright Greg Moss to write House of Gold, currently in production by Boulder’s square product theatre. To him, the details of JonBenét’s case are only important insofar as they contributed to the archetypal elements of her story. And, as the play travels to audiences around the world, the details don’t seem to matter as the societal issues at play come to life on the stage.
At its best, theater is like magic, allowing audiences to suspend their disbelief to play with concepts lying just under the surface of “real” life. House of Gold, although crude and jarring in its delivery, is successful in harnessing its brutality to invite such introspection. It raises themes about whiteness, sexual fantasy and the quest for immortality. But most disturbing is the way it challenges the innocent nobility of what it means to rear children in America.
“Thorny as this play is, I was drawn to it because I have always been attracted by notions of the American dream,” says Emily Harrison, producer of the play and artistic director of square product theatre. “It’s this idea that if you work hard enough you can be anything you want, that you can be a black woman born into poverty and, if you are willing to work hard enough, you can rise up and achieve success for yourself.
“But the American dream is an ideological ploy designed to keep the rich people rich and the poor people poor. We delude ourselves into thinking that it’s true, so we pass down these crazy notions and expectations to our children and our children’s children. But theater is a democratic art form, and one that I believe can empower people to change that relentless inheritance.”
When Harrison first read the script of House of Gold she knew it was capable of inspiring introspection from audiences, but to produce the play in Boulder presented a risky proposition — can a Boulder audience stomach such a focused return to JonBenét’s narrative? Is the play abstract enough to avoid inciting local traumas? Will the community that experienced the tragedy be willing to look at their own complicity?
Harrison and Moss explored ways to make the play successful so close to home. The duo decided to keep the script as is, leaving in potentially problematic references to Boulder and Colorado. Instead, they would distance the audience another way — through an extreme abstraction of set design and narrative structure.
The result is a fantastical set, an abstracted version of a house that is sparse but heavily dressed in red, white and blue, serving as a firm reminder that JonBenét’s is an American story and not just a local one. The props add to the mirage, most of them toys or at least toy-like. In part, this supports the audience’s imagination of JonBenét as a six-year-old girl, even though she is played by the full-grown Harrison. But the toys also serve to conjure a sense of fantasy, as if JonBenét is replaced by Alice, having dropped down the rabbit hole into a bizarre tea party in Wonderland.
Director Gleason Bauer contributed an inventive way to help keep a critical distance with the audience by bringing a heavy media presence into the play. Several scenes are broadcast live, projected onto the blinds of the house as metaphorical movie screens while the live action happens on stage — a directorial decision that undoubtedly strengthens the play as a deconstruction of modern day spectacle, i.e., news and reality TV.
Square product theatre is successful in creating a fictional world out of a very real story and does so with plenty of creative talents. The cast seems at home playing their roles in the fantasy land and deliver their lines by striking a precarious balance between fiction and reality. The male characters are especially effective — as JonBenét’s father (Man) and a pedophile (Joe) express the psychology of the male perspective and male gaze with vulnerable artistry.
Nonetheless, and especially as a woman, the play is not easy to watch. It is, as Greg Moss says, “thorny” and viewers aren’t likely to feel any sense of relief or resolution. But then again, maybe that’s not the point.
“This play isn’t a reenactment and it’s not meant to bring resolution. This play is a reckoning and one I think is overdue in this community,” Harrison says. “I think we see our own experience in the play, our own methods of survival we develop, especially as girls and women, to survive. The ways in which [we] are forced to make ourselves small in order to stay safe. … There is a dangerous hunger that’s portrayed throughout the play in pretty much every character, the inability to escape one’s reality both as an innocent and an adult because of how the systems are set up.”
On the Bill: House of Gold — presented by square product theatre. Roser ATLAS Center 1125 18th St., Boulder, 800-838-3006. Through Aug. 12.