By John Moore
Nov. 10, 2012
I so wish I could tell you the classroom drama “How the World Began” is nothing more than an obvious piece of playwriting propaganda — an infuriating pop-culture provocation that unfairly mocks that part of poor, stupid small-town America that still clings to its entrenched belief in “intelligent design” over the science of evolution.
But then there’s that whole … election thing we all just emerged from, bloodied, bruised and bitterly divided. This was the election when Americans took up keyboards (in lieu of arms) to fight our brothers, co-workers and virtual Facebook friends like foot soldiers for truth. But no, not truth — over whether a personal belief trumps an irrefutable fact if you just believe in it hard enough.
Are we seriously still arguing the indisputable fact of evolution, 90 years after the Scopes Monkey Trial?
Why, yes, depressingly … we are. And, for that matter, whether President Obama is a great American — or a Muslim/fascist/Communist/socialist/anti-colonialist.
Catherine Trieschmann’s polarizing, often proudly angry play is set in Plainview (get the irony?), Kansas, in the aftermath of a deadly tornado. She presents three iconic, flawed characters: A tough New York biochemsistry teacher named Susan — made single and 5 months pregnant for added sympathy — has come here to help the town rebuild. Her fatal flaw is her hard-to-believe naivete — she’s a highly educated New Yorker who seems completely unaware and unprepared for the conservative and at-times violent social attitudes that prevail here. Micah is a damaged, orphaned high-school student who takes offense to his new teacher’s flippant (but factual) remark about the origins of life. Micah’s unofficial caretaker is Gene, a presumably cliched old hayseed who proves to be, refreshingly, the most moderate of the three.
Poor Micah, who has lost both parents and an abusive stepfather, is a sweet, cuddly little … monster. Because every time the adults in the story manage to negotiate a truce that will quell the escalating — and predictably more venal — town furor, it is the troubled youth’s intractable adherence to his confused personal principles that ratchet things back up again. Until there are real consequences.
Theater is inherently manipulative. The best theater provokes you without you even knowing you’ve been played. Here … you know it. My buttons were being pushed before the end of the first scene. This play feels like so many Facebook exchanges I’ve had with opposite-thinking strangers and lifelong friends over 2012 campaign issues, it’s a wonder my blood pressure made it through the play unexploded.
All of which is a testament to this being an uncannily effective staging by the Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company — actors Emily Paton Davies, Ryan Wuestewald and Chris Kendall, directed by Steven Weitz.
I saw a lot of local political theater in the month leading up to the election, but going in, I wouldn’t have even presumed “How the World Began” to be among it. But this is political theater made wrenchingly human. Nothing else I saw engaged me as thoroughly and politically as this play did. Arguments (OK, most started by me) spilled out into the parking lot afterward. I haven’t talked as much about a play I’ve seen in I don’t know how long — and that means this company is doing something very right.
This staging, telling this story now, in the week after the election, is why live theater still matters.
Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company’s “How the World Began”
Through Nov. 18
Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays; plus 4 p.m. Sundays
Dairy Center for the Arts, 2590 Walnut St., Boulder, 303-440-7826 or betc’s home page