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Creede Repertory Theatre opens 58th season and celebrates the well-made play

From left, Helen (Kate Berry), and Ava (Teonna Wesley), perform a scene set in the diner with the painting, “Mountain Octopus,” on the wall. (Brooke Ashlee Photography/CRT)
‘Mountain Octopus’ commissioned by Creede for the post-pandemic era

Creede Repertory Theatre has opened its 58th season with a stirring new play, “Mountain Octopus,” by Beth Kander. Worthy of praise for both its content and this production, the work surfaced from the company’s 2022 Headwaters New Play Program. It couldn’t be timelier.

Last week, a hometown audience of locals, long-term supporters and company members filled the surround seats of the Ruth Humphreys Brown Theatre to watch the world premiere of a well-made play unfold. Centered in a fictional town called Chance, the play is about a small Western community recovering from two events: a pandemic and the death of a key elder. The struggle to move on makes the story pertinent for our time.

The concept of a “well-made play” dates back to Aristotle and refers to a cohesive structure that leads to a compelling resolution. Although Kander’s work focuses on a particular summer, 2022, in contemporary America, it has the structure, ingredients and the propulsion of classic drama. If you pay attention to the smallest details and references in Act I, you will be rewarded in Act II with rolling revelations and meaningful connections. Aesthetic wholeness is what well-made plays are known for whether you think of Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House” or Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.”

If you go

WHAT: “Mountain Octopus,” by Beth Kander, world premiere, Creede Repertory Theatre, 58th season.

WHEN: now through Aug. 26.

WHERE: Creede, a three-hour plus drive from Durango.

ADMISSION: Tickets range from $15 to $42 for children, students, adults and seniors.

MORE INFORMATION: Call (719) 658-2540 or visit www.creederep.org.

Kander’s play opens as Helen (a subtle and steely Kate Berry) silently hauls a black garbage bag onto the set and looks over her town diner. It’s been closed throughout the pandemic. Helen surveys her universe, and soon we learn she is preparing to reopen for the summer. From that simple action, a gaze into past and present, all subsequent action unfolds. An anticipatory mood has also been set.

Other community members, Helen’s stepdaughter, an aunt and uncle, a summer regular, a first-time tourist and a mysterious traveler, arrive at the diner. Most memorably, Martha (the inimitable Christy Brandt), white-haired, muttering and argumentative, pulls her oxygen tank, fondly named Billy, everywhere with her. Martha operates as Helen’s foil and the town’s truth-teller.

As others arrive, life in Chance unfurls with all its intimate and unruly connections and disconnections. Some are spoken, many are hidden. The playwright’s skill weaving a texture of communal life becomes incrementally apparent. When textured patterns emerge in Act II, understanding follows, not be given away here.

A word about the title: “Mountain Octopus” seems incongruous and off-putting. But like so many elements, the title acquires meaning in Act II on several levels. All that will be mentioned here is that it’s related to the painting that hangs in the diner. The work, who painted it and the subject itself all connect to larger themes. Well-known Creede painter Stephen Quiller created the work specifically for Kander’s play.

Kander’s play is an ensemble effort. The absence of Ray, the recently deceased, revered community member, is introduced early and reverberates throughout. In effect, Ray is the eighth member of a seven-member cast, grounded by Berry; Brandt; Stuart Rider as Uncle Kurt; Teonna Wesley as Ray’s daughter Ava; Cameron Davis as summer regular Charlie; Matthew Tyler Horn as first-time tourist Michael; and Savanna Padilla as a traveler.

From left, Martha (Christy Brandt), chastises Helen (Kate Berry) in a scene from Beth Kander’s play, “Mountain Octopus.” (Brooke Ashlee Photography/CRT)

On opening night, the ensemble performed with finely-tuned, emotional calibrations. Credit Director Hart for moving the action along swiftly and cleanly delineating what happens where and to whom. Simple, two-character scenes, filled with what appears to be ordinary dialogue, forward significant storytelling. Scene designer Lindsay Fuori creatively solves the problem of several extremely different locations by backing the diner with oversize venetian blinds that mask then reveal a rugged, rocky mountain trail. Lighting designer Kevin Frazier skillfully uses drop spots for other outdoor scenes and clarifies the conclusion with great simplicity. With one intermission, the play runs a little over two hours.

Driving to Creede

A beautiful, 3½-hour drive from Durango to Creede takes you through Bayfield, Pagosa Springs, Wolf Creek Pass, South Fork and then the spectacular Wagon Wheel Pass. Add extra time for many scenic stops. The drive alone is worth the trip to see smart, professional theater in the old mining town of Creede. The CRT company has solidified its reputation for polished, high-style summer theater and is celebrating its 58th year of true repertory theater in the West. Check the website for the entire season.

Judith Reynolds is an arts journalist and member of the American Theatre Critics Association.