On first blush, there’s nothing terribly Fringe-y about Denali (performed at Know Theatre). It’s a fairly straightforward play from Iowa’s Working Group Theatre about three childhood friends who get back together for the first time since a tragic mountain-climbing accident claimed the life of the one person who tied the others together. How could one of them profit from the harrowing story by way of a best-selling memoir? What are the others hiding? Will the truth ever come out?
As the mystery unspools, it’s clear that the piece is weird after all. In a good way. Because you don’t get many opportunities around these parts to see sophisticated writing and story structure like this in a one-act play. Hats off to the 2011 Cincinnati Fringe selection committee for placing a premium on the script, even though the subject matter is far from the usual bombastic Fringe fair.
That hardly means Denali isn’t interesting. At times it’s deeply engrossing. The characters are colorful, and the acting top-notch, especially Kristy Hartsgrove who pulls double duty as the mourning sister Abby and then wickedly funny TV interviewer Karen.
But the script is the star, in my mind. Writer Austin Bunn spins a taut, clever yarn with just enough twists, turns and revelations to keep the audience guessing throughout the well-paced story arc. My only gripe is the somewhat hurried denouement. Earlier scenes are slow, deliberate. They reveal only what the playwright wants to reveal at that moment. Then, when it’s time for the grand resolution, Denali suddenly feels rushed.
To be fair, the piece is less than a year old. It could still be finding its footing by way of Fringe festivals. I’ll hold out hope that with such a promising start it will, like its characters, find its way in the end.