It’s official: Dwight Kurt Schrute is no longer the only beet farmer you should care about.
As great of a land tiller as Scranton, Pennsylvania’s top paper salesman is, there’s a new, much more local dirty-handed crew in town that is stirring up attention at the Aurora Fox Arts Center.
Enter: Franz, Karl, Dieter, Johnny, Bobby, Jim and the entirety of the Hunt family. Unless you’ve been religiously listening to Colorado Public Radio over the past week, these names most likely mean nothing. As does Camp 202 in Greeley. And the Colorado sugar beet harvest of 1944. And probably sugar beets in general — they stain your teeth, ya know.
But local playwright Rick Padden has worked and researched tirelessly to change that ambivalence toward these seemingly peculiar events, locales and personages with “Beets,” his historical fiction drama currently onstage at the Fox.
And he’s succeeded.
Directed by Warren Sherrill and featuring some of the finer young and seasoned actors in the metro area, Padden’s show is an unexpected delight. I mean, who knew a red root crop could carry a nearly two-hour stage show?
Defying expectations, or perhaps providing context when there are no expectations, is the show’s defining trait. POWs in Colorado? Nearly 20,000 of them? And they worked — in Berthoud? Apologies for the questions, but on paper, even after seeing the story unfold, the tale still seems so incredulous. And it’s precisely that I-can’t-believe-this-actually-happened-right-in-our-backyard fascination that makes this show by Read and Rant Productions so unbelievably enjoyable.
Centered on actual events, “Beets” depicts the prickly dynamic between the townspeople of Berthoud and the some 3,000 German prisoners of war they employed during the booming, but shorthanded beet harvest of 1944. Yes, that actually happened and the world (particularly the Disney executives that are inevitably going to ready this plot for the silver screen) owes a massive thanks to Padden for adeptly taking this ready-made heartstring-tugger to the stage. A former editor at the Berthoud Surveyor, Padden clearly put in his due research and cleverly hides what could have been burdened by dates, facts and a general “I’m smarter than you” vibe with intricate, relatable characters and a fluffily layered love story.
That multi-dimensionality – with storyline turns from war to religion to racism to love – is one of the show’s shimmering strength’s and certainly manages to keep the audience engaged throughout. Undoubtedly a feat when considering once again that we’re talking about a beet harvest, here.
Each of the several subplots is tethered to the lives and minds of the Hunt family, which on its face is governed by curmudgeonly patriarch, Fred (Andrew Ulenhopp). Last seen in Spotlight Theater Company’s “A Few Good Men” as a steaming Col. Jessep, Ulenhopp brings a similar tenacity and almost-palpable frustration to this uber-niche role of xenophobic beet farmer. He’s such a believable, stern hard-ass that the end of the first act leaves the audience wondering if his character will ever succumb to any sort of arc (he does), and just stay firmly rooted in his ways (he doesn’t). From being the bigot who doesn’t want to have church services held in German, to tearfully worrying about his son’s well-being while fighting Germans abroad, it’s a very rainbow-shaped role that Ulenhopp leans into
Trying to escape Ulenhopp’s dour persona are forbidden love birds Dieter (Drew Hirschboek) and Fred’s naive daughter, Anna (Jordyn Morgan). Both actors do a fine job of slowly, temperately warming up to one another as they undergo the inevitable move toward cross-cultural acceptance. If it sounds lovey-dovey, that’s because it is, and frankly, it’s endearing as all hell. Hirschboek commands the stage with a demanding presence and deftly portrays the standup, forbidden fruit. And sure, the tale of star-crossed, prohibited love could be one painted as cliché, but it’s a plot line audiences have been enamored with since a certain Casanova from Verona muttered, “What light through yonder window breaks?” And again, when it takes place just a handful of miles from right here in Aurora, any played-out storyline becomes enchanting.
Supporting actors Jack Wefso, Hunter Balch, Ben Griffin, Matthew Lomas and Wyatt Mills all politely compliment the show’s heavy hitting protagonists, with Wefso as Jim and Griffin as the delightfully dorky Bobby standing out as particularly enjoyable farmhands. The latter finds a strangely approachable middle ground between an awkward George McFly and bullish Biff.
But as sound as the supporting characters are, and as brazenly unflappable as Ulenhopp is, Ulhenopp’s wife – both in the production and in real life – Kelly, (Isabelle in the show) stands alone as the show’s stalwart emotional maven. The archetypical sage and understanding side of the Ulhenhopps’ onstage marriage, Kelly navigates an emotional range with a heady blend of grace and gravitas. Perhaps aided by the fact that the audience is inherently in her politically correct, open-armed corner, the “good cop” in the Ulenhopps’ shared scenes definitively rises above on her own merits. Bobbing between sobbing mass and sturdy warrior, Kelly impresses from her first sassy line to her final, heart-wrenching wail.
Overall, “Beets” can hang its red-stained hat on a story and script that are insatiably engaging. And although slightly convenient and overly explanatory at times, the script employs enough clever devices and historical references to keep things interestingly salty throughout. From the hand wave at the mention of “Bob,” to the nod to “All’s Well That Ends Well,” and plenty of Bach throughout — don’t be fooled into thinking this is any sort of low-brow, farmhand-catered pursuit.
If the show is guilty of anything, it’s that the story feels a bit confined at the Fox’s studio space. That’s no slight whatsoever to the team there — the impressive set, complete with a full farmhouse façade, Charles Packard’s floral lighting and quirky, ambient sounds were tremendous. But a story this neat, this packed with geo-political meaning, and this primed and primmed for the silver screen just feels Disney-ready, already. Just one act into “Beets” it’s clear Padden has uncovered an extraordinary, almost-to-good-to-be-real-but-oh-my-gosh-it-is tale that simply cannot be ignored. Add the fact that the backup of the playbill mentions that some POWs would play soccer and baseball against the local Greeley rabble-rousers and it becomes a no-brainer. If you could add a layer of sport to this already insanely beguiling story, you would have a Costner-ready “Remember the Titans”/“McFarland USA”/“Miracle” incantation ripe and ready to steal bushels of American hearts.
(And yes, after “Field of Dreams,” it has to be Costner.)
After starting with talk of Dwight Schrute, here’s a final dipper of wisdom from America’s favorite numbskull Michael Scott: “You have no idea how high I can fly.” That’s what the Dunder Mifflin boss says before setting off to (somewhat unsuccessfully) begin his own company and that’s the attitude “Beets,” and its astounding account of Colorado history should have from here on out. With that, it will soon be coming to a Costner-covered theater near you. Fingers crossed.
At the Aurora Fox runs through Feb. 8.
7:30 p.m. Friday, Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday
The Aurora Fox Arts Center, 9900 E. Colfax Avenue, Aurora.
Tickets are $20 and can ordered by calling 303-739-1970.
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Sugar beets aren’t red. More research? Xenophobia does not describe the attitude of the mostly German ancestors growing beets in Colorado, even now. Racism? No. How about anger and fear of world domination from a nut job whom these POWs fought for. In addition, POWs in the US weren’t tortured, starved, murdered. Not much of a story here. Check out “Unbroken”, a nonfiction account about American POWs and what the entire world was facing.