Tall Tales: “The Whipping Man,” Curious Theatre, Denver

Laurence Curry (left) as John and Cajardo Lindsey (right) as Simon. (M. Stevens)

Tall Tales: “The Whipping Man,” Curious Theatre, Denver

Laurence Curry (left) as John and Cajardo Lindsey (right) as Simon. (M. Stevens)

Laurence Curry (left) as John and Cajardo Lindsey (right) as Simon. (courtesy, Curious Theatre)

Editor’s note: Telluride Inside… and Out’s monthly (more or less) column, Tall Tales, is so named because contributor Mark Stevens is one long drink of water. He is also long on talent. Mark is the author of  two Colorado-based mysteries, “Antler Dust” and “Buried by the Roan,” both on the shelves of Telluride’s own Between the Covers Bookstore, 224 West Colorado Ave, Box 2129. (The third book in the series, “Trapline” is due to be released in Fall, 2014). Mark is a former reporter (Denver Post, Christian Science Monitor, Rocky Mountain News) and television producer (MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour), now working in public relations. He also now writes theatre reviews for TIO, such as this rave about “The Whipping Man,” now playing at Denver’s Curious Theatre through February 15, 2014. Buy tickets here.

The rain is relentless. The walls are crumbling. The roof leaks. Supplies are low—even the whiskey. Looters are out. It’s April, 1865. The Siege of Petersburg has just ended and a Confederate soldier appears in a flash of lightning. He has stumbled home, a bullet in his leg. He can barely walk.

At least, he hopes it’s his home. The war has taken its toll on everything. The once-stately home is in shambles and the soldier, Caleb, is confronted by Simon, who has been forced to play a role as a kind of doomsday prepper of his century. He challenges the intruder at the other end of his long shotgun—at least until recognition sets in.

Caleb is wounded badly and Simon, a slave who knows a thing or two about pain, quickly deduces that Caleb’s lower leg needs to come off. When fellow slave John returns from his rounds, in which he appropriates unprotected items from abandoned homes, the two slaves set about the nasty business on Caleb’s leg with a hand saw and all the whiskey they can get Caleb to consume. Even though it’s a stage and theatre, it’s near impossible not to wince and cringe.

With that powerful scene, “The Whipping Man” is off and running– two soon-to-be former slaves and the wounded soldier.

Who are Jewish—all of them.

The Curious Theatre production of “The Whipping Man” is taut, original, layered, moving and, more than anything else, interesting. A pair of Jewish slaves on the cusp of being freed? If you don’t feel a little spark flash in your head as you contemplate the possibilities, well, go back to your “reality” TV.

The play stirs themes and contrasts from across the millennia.

The play toys with our preconceptions. John isn’t only a casual thief, he’s a well-read student of fiction who puzzles over verses from Leviticus. Caleb is questioning his faith after finding his prayers unanswered in the trenches. But didn’t he survive? Weren’t they answered? Despite living on the verge of freedom, Simon is the one who leads the effort to uphold family traditions. Despite watching his home deteriorate and crumble before his eyes, he is the one who holds firmly to his faith and insists on following its rituals.

The action all takes place on a towering set on The Curious stage, designed by Markas Henry (who did the tattered-soldier and scrappy slave gear outfits as well). The swooping staircase and large windows give us a sense of the once-elegant mansion. Like the humans on stage, the house is also fighting for its life. The walls are dirty and faded; bricks have fallen from the wall. We can feel the grit. This bleak setting is where these three distinctly different individuals will try to adjust to their new world and re-calibrate relationships with each other.

“The Whipping Man” offers complex roles for these three men—and only these three men—and the actors in The Curious production deliver. Lopez’ dialogue is so natural and the exchanges are so well crafted that it’s easy to get lost in the moment, but this trio of actors delivers balanced, controlled performances (co-directed by Kate Folkins and Chip Walton). The story gives Cajardo Lindsey (Simon), Laurence Curry (John) and Sean Scrutchins (Caleb) a variety of notes to hit and all three deliver, particularly Lindsey with his weary view and wise old head. Simon is the one trying to uphold dignity and tradition in the war-torn Richmond, even if he has to wield a shotgun to get the job done, and Lindsey gives gravity to Simon’s firm decision-making and practical insights about how the world has changed (or not). When Simon returns with the news of Lincoln’s assassination, we can all feel the weight and the agony on his shoulders.

At the same time, Scruchtins shows us Caleb’s vulnerability and passion. The vast majority of Scrutchins’ performance is confined to the bed where his bloody stump is healing. Curry dances effortlessly in showing us John’s confidence as a neighborhood scrounger and his fears for the uncertainty that lies ahead.

As it’s mid-April, the second act sets up a Passover seder that requires considerable improvisation for the right food and drink, given the limitations in the local supply. Ironies, of course, abound but the script respects the audience. There might be plenty of opportunities for the parallelisms to launch a hackneyed speech but Lopez shows restraint and hits the right balance between character and message, story and metaphor. Can one man know another man’s pain? Can one man fathom another mans’ loss? What is freedom, exactly? Can you snap your fingers and make yourself free?

The long lingering moment at the end between John and Caleb—utter silence—is pitch perfect. “The Whipping Man” is stirring and unusual. It’s a daring bit of theatre this production is wonderfully staged.


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