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Dusty and the Big Bad World

The list of laws and policies that should be reversed by the Obama administration is long, nevertheless we hope that as they work their way down—from the economy, the war industry, war crimes, and the usurpation of Constitutional rights—there will be the same determined spirit of reform they started with when they get to public broadcasting.

(Left to right) Jeanine Serralles as Karen and Charlotte Booker as Marianne
(L to R) Jeanine Serralles as Karen
and Charlotte Booker as Marianne
Photo: Terry Shapiro
In the Denver Center Theatre Company's world premiere of Cusi Cram's adaptation of a 2005 incident in which Bush's Secretary of Education took an axe to PBS programming, we are reminded just how nefarious the tentacles of moral self-righteousness can be.

"Dusty," an award-winning children's show, invites the winner of a model-family contest on the air. Everyone on the staff agrees that precocious Lizzie is the best choice; however, before the taped segment is broadcast, the White House discovers that Lizzie has two dads.

Cram avoids black and white characterizations, deftly challenging our assumptions with an even-handed treatment, forcing us to muster a reasonable dose of sympathy for the antagonist, Marianne (Charlotte Booker), a misguided and confused Christian wrestling with her own tragedy. Booker walks a fine line between heartfelt sincerity and egocentric manipulation, further distancing us from stereotypical judgments.

Kelly McAndrew as Jessica and Sam Gregory as Nathan
Kelly McAndrew as Jessica
and Sam Gregory as Nathan
Photo: Terry Shapiro
Our prejudices are also challenged by, Jessica (Kelly McAndrew), the PBS executive producer, and Nathan (Sam Gregory), the show's producer, who react with equally ineffective extremes to Marianne's threats: Jessica calmly believing the show's laurels will provide protection; Nathan rabidly preparing to go for the jugular and reveal Marianne's secrets.

McAndrew establishes Jessica's self confidence before revealing her long-buried motivation and painful vulnerability. Gregory revels in Nathan's contradictions and, with impeccable timing, his wit as well.

The catlyst for the strange turn of events that gives the story its fizz is Karen (Jeanine Serralles), a reformed alcoholic who rides the razor's edge throughout, veering between tragic desperation and comedic dysfunction, at one point peppering Nathan with astonishing monologue that captures her entire life in five minutes.

Chloe Nosan as Lizzie Goldberg-Jones
Chloe Nosan
as Lizzie Goldberg-Jones
Photo: Terry Shapiro
Chloe Nosan is a natural as Lizzie, though her diction and pitch is at times challenging for older ears, especially with the blocking challenges of the circular Space Theatre. A representational, rather than realistic, voice would have played more effectively.

There are a couple of occasions when the ideological shadings of the script draw attention to themselves, the characters turning into shills for Red and Blue arguments; otherwise, the political debate is naturally derived from the character's circumstances.

More problematic, however, is the lackadaisical ending. It's clear, only two and half weeks into Obama's term that this script was developed in a much darker time; the lack of hope in the final words is painfully obvious:

KAREN: ... I need to believe there is a reason horrible things happen to great people and the wrong people win and that somehow something lovely and good can emerge out of the ashes. I need that.
LIZZIE: I get it.
KAREN: Yeah.
What does Lizzie mean when she says she gets it? She and Karen seem to be two birds adrift, not a pair of phoenixes about to rise from the ashes. The scene is languid; we don't feel that either of them will be stimulated to action by what has happened; performed in-the-round, the action needs to be a lot more demonstrative to make a statement; as it is, half the audience sees one face and one back, while the other half of the audience sees profiles. A couple of additional sentences and the perspective could change entirely. Dusty deserves a catharsis.

The Denver Center Theatre Company's world premiere of Cusi Cram's Dusty and the Big Bad World runs through February 28th. 303-893-4100 or denvercenter.org.

Bob Bows

 

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