Thursday, October 18, 2007

"The Normal Heart"

Sure, you'll probably have other opportunities this season to see productions as powerful and as well acted as Upstart Performing Ensemble's "The Normal Heart."

But none of them are going to cost a mere $10, making this play the season's best dramatic value. Kaleb Kohart and Ryan Hart lead an excellent cast in the gut-wrenchingly emotional second offering in the group's Gay and Lesbian Theatre Festival.

Larry Kramer's largely autobiographical play about the early days of AIDS - before the disease even had a name - is a bit preachy, and too many of the climaxes involve yelling. But the preachiness and yelling reflect Kramer's outrage at the government's and medical community's slow response. And the outrage never loses its impact, because there's so much variety to the emotional texture: Kramer gives every actor a chance to shine.

Which they do, expertly directed by Sarah Owen. As Dr. Brookner, Barbara Summerville rages at the medical community; as Mickey, a young gay activist, Sam Gleason rages at Ned for suggesting that gays give up casual sex - which, for Mickey, represents freedom and humanity.

As for the outrage of Kohart and Hart, well, go see for yourself. Kohart won the 2006 Pikes Peak Arts Council award for best actor, but here he turns in what may be his finest performance yet as the passionate but volatile Ned. There's rage aplenty, but there's also tenderness, vulnerability, and self-doubt. Hart's Felix is less complicated - Felix wears his feelings on his sleeve, from uninhibited horniness to deep self-pity and beyond - but no less deep.

Other standout performances include Tony Babin as Ben, the brother who loves Ned but can't quite accept him; Roderick Garrison as the closeted but diplomatic Bruce (his description of his lover's death is one of the play's emotional high points); and William Willhide as the sweet-natured Tommy.

Performances are 8 p.m. today (Friday) and 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday at the Smokebrush Foundation, 218 W. Colorado Avenue (underneath the Colorado Avenue bridge). Call 636-5089 for more information.


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