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Taking on guns and indifference

Powerful Denver play explores clash of cultures

Nagle Jackson's powerful new play, "The Elevation of Thieves," comes at a difficult time for Colorado. It is an intense and sensitive production that is bound to shake up emotions, generate thoughtful debate, and stir consciences - perhaps even controversy.

In this world premier at the Denver Center Theatre Company (DCTC), an unspecified European city is experiencing a rapid influx of Muslim immigrants from an unspecified Middle Eastern country. The white Christian population of the "old town" feel the encroachment of the "new town" acutely. But both sides have their bigots.

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It is just before Easter, and the town is planning the centuries-old celebration of "The Elevation of Thieves" - a plausible ritual Mr. Jackson concocted from his own interest in medieval miracle plays. Each year two men are honored to be chosen as the thieves who were crucified on either side of "The Good Man." The Good Man himself has not been chosen for over 100 years, since his selection must meet with no objection from anyone in the town.

Cheesy sentimentality threatens as the progressive mayor hires a special-events coordinator to turn the traditional pageant into a secular event. The idea is to be more inclusive, but the effect is ludicrous, with ear-splitting rock music and explosives to simulate the biblical earthquake.

Still, in the spirit of community, even the bishop advocates the election of a Muslim gardener as one of the thieves. The gardener wants the job for political reasons, but the mayor opposes him. The gardener is not chosen. Meanwhile, the nicest, most helpful guy in town, a popular athlete named Johnny who is an orphan loved by everyone in general (but no one in particular), begins to drop unheeded hints - he wants to be elected the Good Man.

Frustrations grow. Assault weapons are handy.

The senseless violence that erupts at the end of the play all happens off stage, described by a distraught aristocrat named Arthur. It echoes recent carnage from Dunblane, Scotland, to Kosovo to Littleton, Colo. (The day the play opened, a gunman in Denver was arrested with explosives, planning to blow up a mosque.)

But the play was written three years ago (partially in response to the Dunblane incident) and won an Onassis Foundation International Playwrighting Award (a $150,000 third prize) in 1996.

The competition specified that submissions should concern the issues facing the world at the end of the 20th century. And Jackson certainly has taken up some of the most pressing social problems of our time - the clash of cultures and religions, the tensions arising from overcrowding in cities, the ready availability of guns and other weapons, and the growing incivility and indifference in society to the needs (and suffering) of others.

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In a flier inside each program, the DCTC warns patrons of the off-stage violence, but points out that "This play is about spotting the roots of violence and finding ways to anticipate violence before it is too late."

"The Elevation of Thieves" is unabashedly a message play - a powerful, if compassionate, indictment of our era. Today's techno-trash cannot be passed off as aesthetic experience. Religion cannot be replaced by empty amusements. And care for the neighbor cannot be replaced by political maneuvering.

Jackson offers no answers, but he crystallizes some of the most difficult questions facing communities around the world. Despite the religious undercurrents of the play, he sees no solutions in organized religion.

Audiences so far have stood and cheered, or, after applauding the actors, sat quietly in contemplation of the play's meaning. They have also lingered in the lobby to discuss it. And many have told the staff of the DCTC that they have found catharsis in it. Some others have found it too troubling to think about, after so much recent local suffering.

But these viewers may have missed the real significance of the play - that the care for the neighbor, empathy, is extraordinarily important - it is, in fact, a life-and-death issue.

"If someone had picked up on Johnny earlier, if someone had just intervened here or there [the character drops hints all along], the violence might have been averted," playwright Jackson said in a recent interview. "Usually, we think of the outsider as the one who is neglected. What is more interesting to me is someone whom everyone thinks is just fine. No one bothers to find out what he really thinks or feels."

Johnny has no family, and he is not getting what he wants from the town folk. It doesn't help that he is exploited by them, Jackson says.

Is the play about taking responsibility? "Yes. Everyone is busy guarding their own turf - religious, political, or social - and not paying any attention to who this person is," he says. "Nor do I point the finger of guilt to these people either. It's just as Arthur says at the end of the play, 'Too much change, too many people, too much....' "

At the end of this production, three human-size crosses stand on a raised, stylized hillside. A character places herself against one of them in symbolic atonement. The implication that she is a latter-day Mary Magdalene is inescapable.

Then Jackson allows the slain to speak for themselves, a homage to Thornton Wilder's "Our Town."

He ends with another homage, this time to the quintessential European singer, and it is the one ray of hope he offers. On the soundtrack, underscoring the religious overtones of the play, the voice of Greek star Nana Mouskouri sings: "I come as a martyr to the fire.... I come as a newborn seeking life. Forgive me...."

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