The mystery of 'Appoggiatura' unfolds with tonight's opening

Photos by Jennifer M. Koskinen

“Titles are mysterious,” says playwright James Still, author of the DCPA Theatre Company’s world premiere staging of Appoggiatura. It’s a word few people know … and even fewer can pronounce.

But Still hopes the mystery of the word becomes a part of the audience’s experience of the play – starting tonight with its opening performance at the Ricketson Theatre.

“Sure, I could have called this play Three Americans in Venice,” Still said at “Perspectives,” a public dialogue with DCPA theatregoers that preceded the first preview performance. “But since the play is partly about the poetry of Venice, it would seem strange to me if the title didn’t reflect that in some way.”

“And besides – we all get to learn a new word, and what it means.”

That word is Appoggiatura. And it is pronounced “uh-poj-uh-too-ruh.” It refers to the embellishing note that precedes an essential melodic note just before it leans into a resolve. Which is just what happens to Still’s characters through the course of his play. 

“The play is about three people sharing grief in Venice,” said Rob Nagle, who was last seen in Denver playing more than 30 roles in The 39 Steps. In Appoggiatura, he plays just one – a man named Aunt Chuck. 

Darrie Lawrence and  Lenne Klingaman in 'Appoggoatura.' Photo by Jennifer M. Koskinen“There is an older woman named Helen, who was married to a man for several decades,” said Nagle. “He left her for my character, and they were together for almost 25 years before he died. So these are the two people who loved him most in his life, and they are now vacationing together in Venice. There is enough water under the bridge for them to do that. And along with them on this trip is Helen’s granddaughter, Sylvie, who I helped raise. That’s why my character’s name is Aunt Chuck.”

And that is your launching point: “You have three people trying to get through a challenging trip. And at the same time, they are trying to say goodbye to the man they all really love,” said Nagle.

Panel moderator Douglas Langworthy asked Still about the genesis of the play, and Still said there are many: Personal experiences; his time spent in Italy; and especially, he said, “the experience of sorrow and grief – and how that can put us in a kind of altered state, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Some wonderful things can happen to you in that state … and that is part of what the play is about.”

Another of Still’s influences was Shakespeare.

“We all know Shakespeare wrote a play set in Venice called The Merchant of Venice,” he said. “But there are moments in my play that more resemble A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or The Tempest. There were moments in the writing of the play where I would think, ‘If Shakespeare lived now and had access to the technology we have today, what would he do in this moment?’ And so you’ll see how we tried to do that.”

Venice is essentially a city on water, and both Still’s script and David A. Barber’s scenic design reflect that fluidity. The action moves so rapidly throughout Venice that Still joked his story takes place in “30,000 locations.” Barber embraced modern technology by creating a streetscape that changes not physically but through video projection overlays he made in collaboration with the DCPAs Charlie Miller.

“It’s almost like you are taking a tour of Venice,” Barber said. “I like the idea that video projection can layer over actual scenery so you have some very real architecture the actors can embrace and interact with, but you can paint it over with light to keep changing it.”

Another essential ingredient of the play, directed by Risa Brainin, is live music from three street musicians playing violin, mandolin and guitar. The whimsical story even features an appearance by no less than Vivaldi himself (Julian Remulla).

“Venice was Vivaldi’s hometown,” Still said. “He was a choir director as well as a composer. I thought the music had to come from someone who grew up there. Music is a kind of muse to one of the characters in the play. Music is part of the storytelling. It is very much woven into the fabric of the play.”

Still explained to the audience that Appoggiatura is actually the second chapter of a trilogy – but the first to be produced.

“The first play is called The House That Jack Built, and it takes place in Vermont at Thanksgiving,” he said. “Aunt Chuck and Sylvie (the granddaughter) are only off-stage characters in that play. You learn about them, but you don’t meet them. The second play is Appoggiatura, and it takes place about six months later, all in one day in Venice. You will hear the name ‘Jack’ in Appoggiatura, and I hope you will listen for it, because it is an important piece of this overall story. And then the third play is called Miranda, and it is some years into the future. That is a very different play about another family member who is in the CIA. That play takes place in Yemen.”

It wasn’t his intention to write a trilogy – Still only set out to write Appoggiatura. “But my feeling is that plays come with their own souls, and my job is to uncover it,” he said. “So you listen very deeply to the play, and then let it be the play that it is – even if it has a hard title to pronounce.”

To anyone who thinks playwriting is a glamorous life, know that while Still will be in Denver for tonight’s opening performance – he will be on a plane bound for Washington D.C. at 6 o’clock Saturday morning.

Rob Nagle Quote

Still has the almost unheard-of good playwriting fortune of opening two different world-premiere plays within five days of each other. The Widow Lincoln opens Jan. 28 at Ford’s Theatre, famously known as the place where Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. Still was commissioned to write a play marking the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s death. 

“It’s about Mary Lincoln, and it is based on a very little explored historical footnote,” Still said. “The morning after Lincoln died, Mary was taken back to the White House. But she refused to go into any rooms where she had any memories of her husband. So she ended up going into a little storage room – and she didn’t come out for 40 days and 40 nights.”

All that is known about Mary Lincoln’s exile comes from a two-paragraph letter she wrote about a year later. “So that’s the play: Imagining what happened in that room,” said Still, who has been regularly commuting between Denver and D.C. since Dec. 7.

Before tomorrow’s pre-dawn flight, there is tonight’s opening of Appoggiatura. It’s a wonderfully funny play that will land on audiences like a soft note finding its home in a musical ballad.

“This is a heartbreaking, deeply moving story about love and loss, the desire to connect – and finding a way to say goodbye,” said Nagle. “It dances beautifully in this realm of extremes. You go from a really lovely, light moment, and then all of a sudden, a turn hits. Some of the scenes, I have to say, they kill me. They hurt inside because they’re so meaningful to me.”

 Coming up:

  • Join ‘Appoggiatura’ cast members Darrie Lawrence, Mehry Eslaminia and Julian Remulla at noon Tuesday, Jan. 27, for Page to Stage, a lunchtime panel conversation with DCPA Arts Journalist John Moore at the Colfax Tattered Cover. Free.
  • The next “Perspectives” conversation hosted by Douglas Langworthy will be on “Benediction” at 6 p.m. Friday, Jan. 30, in The Jones Theatre, 13th and Arapahoe streets. Free.
  • Appoggiatura: Ticket information
    Performances run through Feb. 22
    Ricketson Theatre
    Performances daily except Mondays
    Call 303-893-4100, or go to the Denver Center’s web site at

    Our Appoggiatura “Meet the cast” video series (to date):
    Meet Darrie Lawrence
    Meet Nick Mills
    More to come

    Our previous coverage of Appoggiatura:
    Video: Our ‘Appoggiatura’ montage of scenes
    Interview: Playwright James Still is running to catch up to himself  

    Video: Talking Appoggiatura with James Still and Risa Brainin
    Photos: Our Appoggiatura photos so far
    Appoggiatura Director Risa Brainin named head of National Theatre Conference
    Appoggiatura named to new DCPA Theatre Company season
    Kent Thompson handicaps the season, play by play
    Summit Soliloquy: James Still introduces Appoggiatura
    Appoggiatura: So what’s in a name?

    Appoggiatura: Cast and crew
    Helen: Darrie Lawrence
    Sylvie: Lenne Klingaman
    Aunt Chuck: Rob Nagle
    Marco/Young Gordon: Nick Mills
    Kate/Ensemble: Mehry Eslaminia
    Old Man/Trio/Gordon: Paul Bentzen
    Vivaldi: Julian Remulla

    Written by James Still
    Directed by Risa Brainin
    Set Design by David M. Barber
    Costume Design by Meghan Doyle
    Lighting Design by Charles Macleod
    Sound Design by Tyler Nelson
    Composer/Musical Director: Michael Keck
    Dramaturg: Doug Langworthy
    Projection Design by Charlie Miller
    Choreography and Movement by Bob Davidson
    Voice and Dialect: Kathy Maes

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