This article first appeared in Westword.
Some twenty years ago a group of ex-students from Colorado College founded Buntport, a unique Denver theater company that is opening its fiftieth group-created original production, Richard, this weekend.
The troupe has held innovative productions from the start. The earliest Buntport offering included visiting fellow student Thaddeus Phillips presenting two Shakespeare plays, King Lear and The Tempest, in a solo, one-evening performance. Lear’s daughters were represented by inanimate objects — a plastic flower, a high-heeled shoe. The ocean at the heart of The Tempest was a kiddie pool. The theater’s cavernous warehouse home was bitterly cold, but when someone cranked up the heat, the sound drowned out Phillips’s words.
The prevalent viewer response to the production was a mixture of bemused admiration for a brilliant and entirely original evening, as well as a persistent question: “How long could this crazy organization survive?”
Richard will take place in a cleverly configured and decently heated and/or cooled space in front of an ever-expanding audience of Buntport devotees. The play was inspired by England’s Richard III, a king whose image has been indelibly shaped by Shakespeare’s play, named for the king. Richard III depicts the king as a physically and mentally twisted goblin of pure evil, guilty of the murder of two young princes who stood in the way of his succession to the throne, along with many others. Not everyone buys this characterization, however. There’s a dedicated group called the King Richard III Society that’s been struggling for decades to clear the monarch’s name, and whose dedication helped lead to the discovery of Richard’s corpse — missing its feet — buried under a parking lot in the town of Leicester.
What Buntport will do with this strange history is anyone’s guess. The program description is typically brief: “Richard is a comedy about Richard III enthusiasts, Victorian undergarments, and the lying liars that make theater.”
Buntporter Erin Rollman adds a touch more: “It’s a comedy that explores art as propaganda and the tenuous relationship we seem to have with history. It takes place at a meeting of Richard III enthusiasts and hopefully reminds people that there is an agenda in storytelling — including in our own.”
After watching Buntport’s productions through two decades, most of us have some idea of what we’re in for. These artists are experimenters, influenced by Eastern European theater, among other forms, and intensely creative in their use of props and fluid arrangement of sets. They are also often inspired by some odd tidbit of news or observation: Are there really people paid to deface your books so you’ll look well-read, and who are they? What was Tommy Lee Jones doing standing in line for the opera Turandot in Santa Fe? Why was a well-known clown imprisoned in London for saying the words “roast beef” on stage? Famous literary names often appear in the plays — Mary Shelley, Alexandre Dumas, James Thurber, Franz Kafka. And there has also been a mystical, beautiful rendition of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, sans kiddie pool.
The group is comprised of Erik Edborg, Brian Colonna, Rollman, Hannah Duggan and SamAnTha Schmitz, who doesn’t appear onstage but is involved in every aspect of the work — financial, managerial and artistic. We know by now that all the actors are terrific performers, each with their own particular and eccentric style. Duggan tends to carry a hilarious sense of aggrieved injustice with her onto the stage, mixed with a crazed originality. No one who saw her as Lavinia in the company’s insanely comic version of Titus Andronicus trying to speak while her severed tongue — represented by a strip of red felt — dangled from her mouth. Brian Colonna is as convincing playing an aristocratic Englishman as a singing lab rat. We’ve seen Edborg portray a pedantic art critic, a sadistic hare and a puppet. In every role he tosses aside convention to create someone or something both completely fantastical and fully embodied. As for Rollman, she can inspire gusts of audience laughter as easily as she can stun everyone into a deep sad silence or a profound realization.
We asked each of these creatives what they felt they’ve achieved during their years together.
“I think I’m drawn to shows that include moments of magic,” says Colonna. “When the unexpected happens and it’s truly transporting or even transformative for the audience.”
Asked to describe Richard, he says, “It’s about art and making it, and the effect it has on the world.” He pauses, then asks, “Are all our productions about that?”
As for Duggan, “The purpose of any entertainment is to give people a second to live a life outside of their own heads.”
Looking back on twenty years of close collaboration and experimentation, problems and successes, grants, awards and critical praise — followed by over two years of dealing with COVID — we wondered what the Buntport folks would tell their younger selves now.
“Take care of the people around you,” says Colonna. “The journey isn’t really about you. It’s about everyone else.”
“I would tell myself that expectations only lead to disappointments, and have fun,” comments Duggan.
Rollman says, “I’m not sure I have any more clarity on life or theater now than I used to. Sometimes, no matter how much experience you have, it feels like you are reinventing the wheel. I guess that’s a good thing to tell my younger self: Try not to get frustrated; it’s all part of the process.”
For Schmitz, the question brings up a memory. “I wrote a letter to the other members of Buntport when I was graduating college to ask for a job,” he recalls. “It said I couldn’t think of any job I’d rather have than making theater with them. I still feel that way. To my younger self, I might explain that it will at times be exhausting, and sometimes she’ll want a regular job that stops at 5 p.m., but that twenty years later we will still be showing our work to audiences that love it, and that was the goal.”
Edborg adds, “I would tell my younger self, ‘Be patient! You’ve got a good thing going.’”
Richard opens 7:30 p.m., Friday, April 8, Buntport Theater, 717 Lipan Street. Following performances are Fridays and Saturdays, 7:30 p.m., and 3 p.m. Sundays (except for April 17), through April 30. Tickets are donation-based. Find more information at Buntport.com.