Local Culture

Theater in Aurora: This weekend at the Fox

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“Mekong Joe,” 7:30 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, and 2 p.m. on Sunday, Aug. 17, 18 and 19 at the Aurora Fox theater, 9900 E. Colfax Ave. Information: 303-739-1970 or aurorafoxartscenter.org. Tickets start at $20.

The dense traffic, bustling markets and wartime tensions of 1960s-era Saigon become platforms for universal themes in “Mekong Joe,” the one-man show that will wrap up its final trio of shows at the Aurora Fox this weekend.

The biographical piece performed by Joe Wandell and co-written by Steve Stajich poses deep questions about identity, familial ties and cultural dissonance in a casual and approachable framework. Wandell takes a minimally decorated stage in the Aurora Fox’s black-box theater and transforms it alternately into a Saigon street scene, a tense audition room in L.A. and a sprawling home in the backwoods of Maryland. Despite a few slip-ups in the delivery, the account is moving and compelling. The narrative boasts a constant ability to transport the audience with the most simplistic and earnest of approaches.

Wandell, who was airlifted out of Saigon as a child with his brother in the closing days of the Vietnam War, tells his remarkable story with pathos, humor and self-deprecation. Wandell’s upbringing in Saigon in the ‘60s, his flight from the city with his brother in the final days of the war, his separation from his mother who stayed behind and his adoption by a stern military couple in the U.S. – all of these moments become the major plot points in Wandell’s first-person narrative.

The most moving moments come in the second act, the part of the show that details the teary reunion with the brothers’ mother three decades after their flight, a moment captured in 2006 by a crew from “Dateline NBC.” The prospect of a reunion carries its own crises of identity and worth, the buildup to Wandell’s homecoming to Vietnam poses questions that could be applied to any one of countless contemporary conflicts.

The show’s direct and intimate style helps make that emotional story feel all the more immediate. Wandell, a film and television actor whose experience includes stints as a stand-up comic, shows plenty of skill in the small setting of the black box theater. What’s more, Stajich’s writing sparkles with poetic turns of phrase and a solid sense of timing.

The text is dense – it spans nearly two hours – and the demands on Wandell showed at a few moments during last week’s performance in the form of some forgotten lines and a couple of cues from Stajich. Despite those hiccups and a small crowd, the resonance of Wandell’s compelling story came through. Because of a short run in Aurora and a longer tour in cities across the country, the show will only be up for one more weekend. It would be wise to catch it before it moves on.

“Spring Awakening,” 7:30 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays and at 2:30 p.m. on Sundays until Aug. 26 at the Aurora Fox studio theater, 9900 E. Colfax Ave. Information: 303-739-1970 or ignitetheatre.com. Tickets start at $25.

There’s a cost to pay for ignorance, a price that can be counted in tragedy and lost innocence.

Those kinds of consequences are impossible to ignore by the end of “Spring Awakening,” the Tony Award-winning musical by Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater that’s running until the end of August on the Aurora Fox’s main stage. One of the final production of the Ignite Theatre company’s 2012 season, the show explores the toll of cultural repression and society-wide fear.

The show is a creative coup for the young Ignite Theatre company, a high-profile Broadway show that tests the limits of the troupe on several fronts. It’s hard to go wrong by the material – musical director Blake Nawa recognizes the potential of Duncan Sheik’s effusive and captivating score, doing tunes like “I Believe” and “The Dark I Know Well” justice. What’s more, director Amy Osatinski taps into the energy and enthusiasm of the young crew to find the subtleties of the story, a tale that mixes modern aesthetics with a Victorian setting.

The plot tracks the union of Wendla Bergmann (Brooke Singer) and Melchior Gabor (Jack Thomas), two teenagers wading through the repression and hang-ups of German society in the late 1800s. In a stern setting where sex ed comes in vague parables and school instruction takes the form of Latin lessons, their romance takes on a tragic tone almost immediately.

That dark theme finds a parallel in the travails of the other young characters, figures like Moritz (Chris Russell), a sexually repressed primary school student whose frustrated and misunderstood urges turn fatal. It’s also at work in the backstory of Martha (Jessica Kincaid), a teen whose abuse has remained hidden in the tight societal confines of the era. It’s clear in the casually cruel attitude of all the adults in the show, played comprehensively by Andy Anderson and Suzanne Nepi.

Those stories come through in compellingly contemporary music, energetic tunes delivered in part by a constant chorus dressed as modern theater goers and seated in pews along the side of the stage. Along with slides and photos beamed on screens worked into the set design, those features help give a modern spin to the message of the show.

The Ignite cast juggles all of these demands with zeal and passion, an infectious spirit that makes up for occasional missteps. The portrayal of the adults in the show can feel a bit cartoonish at times, and sound issues with the handheld microphones muddy the sound during some of the show’s best numbers.

Still, Osatinski and the strong crew keep alive the main message of the show – that repression and ignorance can cost dearly. It’s a theme that’s just as fitting for modern audiences as it was for the show’s hapless teens, youths who become victims of society’s hang-ups and fears.

ALSO THIS WEEKEND:

“The Government Inspector,” 7:30 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays; 2:30 p.m., Sundays, July 27 through Aug. 26 at the Vintage Theatre, 1468 Dayton St. Tickets start at $25. Information: 303-856-7830 or vintagetheatre.com. Details: The Vintage will mark its third featured show in Aurora with Jeffrey Hatcher’s “The Government Inspector,” a comedy set in a small Russian hamlet and focuses on the chaos that ensues after a surprise visit from a government official.

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  • Barb Wontellya

    I saw Spring Awakening at the Fox Theater in Aurora this evening and am headed back with friends tomorrow night. I thought it was perfectly cast, voices beautiful and haunting, reflecting the turmoil of the then and the now in such interesting ways. Congratulations to the actors and Keith Rabin for taking on such a compelling and emotionally packed story with flair, passion, and the raw talent of these young actors. It was excellent. There are only a few opportunities left so don’t miss it!

  • Blake Nawa’a

    Blake NAWA’A here: It’s so nice to get the mention (so many reviews seem to think the music magically springs from nowhere, and it was a joy to share this with the band), but my last name is spelled Nawa’a (not Nawa, as in the article..and yes, with the apostrophe). A correction would be appreciated. Glad you enjoyed the show!