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Razzle Dazzle: A Saroyan Circus

It has been two generations since William Saroyan was at the height of his powers and acclaim, but the words from the playwright who turned down the Pulitzer Prize still ring true in Razzle Dazzle: a Saroyan Circus, now running at Germinal Stage Denver.

Intercutting four short theatre pieces and radio plays—with their sometimes impressionistic, sometimes hyper-real scripts—along with director Ed Baierlein's free form design and blocking, the production captures the avant-garde nature of Saroyan's thinking without sacrificing the optimistic humanism of his heart.

While it's fashionable to say that Saroyan ignored the sine qua non of drama—conflict—that's simply not the case here, where the stakes are multiplied by the juxtaposition of the four plot lines, each with its own tension. In this well-conceived sampling, the conflict between characters simmers just below the surface, with unspoken implications packing subconscious punch before roiling forth in waves that alternate center stage with Saroyan's socio-political reflections.

As cited when turning down the Pulitzer, the playwright was averse to the notion of commerce judging art, and in this script that idea is clearly extended into everyday life as well. Following an early rumination from Saroyan on the destruction of culture by commoditization, the red "On the Air" light comes on, and we relive a fervent speech once delivered by Burgess Meredith trumpeting freedom and democracy.

Mike McCuen as William Saroyan
Mike McCuen as William Saroyan
Photo: Germinal Stage Denver
A big bonus is this compilation is the character of Saroyan himself, personified head to toe by Mike McCuen, who ambles from his front row director's vantage to the stage, mixing a gruff, hard-boiled exterior, with a voice pitched to penetrate our complacency, and a down-home folksiness that invites us into his rich world of good people who struggle with life's temptations and conundrums.

On the night of the first preview performance, ensemble member Travis W. Boswell flipped his car in an icy storm and was replaced by Baierlein who, on book, easy fell into the episodic rhythm of the shuffled storylines, and looked right at home in the studio setting where scripts and imagined microphones periodically called our attention to the play within a play form.

The slice-of-life stories evoke feelings that range in similarity to the nostalgic portraitures of Wilder's "Our Town" and the absurdist looping of Pinter, in combination peppering the evening with razor sharp conversations and compelling monologues.

Marc K. Moran, Sallie Diamond, Suzanna Wellens, and Kristina Denise Pitt in Razzle Dazzle: A Saroyan Circus
Marc K. Moran, Sallie Diamond,
Suzanna Wellens, and Kristina Denise Pitt
in Razzle Dazzle: A Saroyan Circus
Photo: Germinal Stage Denver
A number of characterizations stand out, including Eric Victor's unassuming painter who preaches the gospel of light, Suzanna Wellens' reticent jailhouse cook's breakthrough of hope, Kristina Denise Pitt's poetic muse who transcends hunger for immortality, Marc K. Moran's news announcer's homage to the universality of one fallen soldier, and Baierlein's itinerant gambler's last bet on love.

The son of Armenian immigrants, Saroyan had a deep fondness for his family's adopted country. On the eve of World War II, Saroyan was a member of The Free Company, a group of American writers (including Maxwell Anderson, Stephen Vincent Benet, Archibald Macleish, and Orson Welles) who emphasized the fundamental freedoms and rights for which the country was about to fight. Add his eloquent expression of these values to an array of surprising insights on the human condition and, voilà: a unique and unpredictable drama.

Germinal Stage Denver's Razzle Dazzle: A Saroyan Circus runs through May 6th. 303-455-7108.

 

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