In Josh Hartwell’s homage to Mae Brussell at Miners Alley, deep doubt continues to fuel movements

Who really killed JFK, or Lee Harvey Oswald? How about Frank Zappa, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin — artists in their prime with every reason to live but with anti-establishment tendencies that could have made them targets?

We may think we live in the golden age of conspiracy theory, where things like “Pizza gate” and the birther movement rocket into our here-and-now via social media. But conspiracy theory has been around for decades, centuries, probably millennia. Its roots come from people trying to explain things they don’t fully understand, and an urge to connect the dots between (mostly) bad things that could point to some underlying mischief — if not outright evil.

In Colorado playwright Josh Hartwell’s Queen of Conspiracy, now playing at Miners Alley in Golden, conspiracy theory is conflated with infection: It’s a rabbit hole that, once you go down it, there’s no way out short of death.

Queen of Conspiracy

William Hahn as Henry Miller with Abby apple Boes in ‘Queen of Conspiracy.’

Or madness.

Queen of Conspiracy starts with the real-life story of Mae Brussell (Abby Apple Boes), the eponymous rabble-rouser of the show who was active on radio in the ’70s and ’80s and primarily focused on the JFK assassination and the Warren Commission report. Before the show even opens, Boes is on stage, fussing with her newspaper clippings, shuffling paper around as she prepares for her next deep dive into, perhaps, page 723 of the Warren report or a diatribe about the evidence of fascism in America.

But while the upstage portion of the set is dedicated to Brussell’s home radio studio in California, downstage we’re in an apartment in Aurora, Colorado, where Rachel (Chloe McLeod) and her mother Olivia (Heather Lacy) are getting reacquainted after what was presumably a lengthy estrangement. Years have passed since Brussell’s (probably suspicious) death in 1988, and we soon learn that Olivia was a disciple of some sort, a carrier of Brussell’s “sprouts” — a series of tapes she sent to her followers as her influence faded.

Olivia wants to sow the seeds of conspiracy in Rachel’s mind, but the newly moved, marginally employed yoga instructor with the unemployed boyfriend is focused on other things. Carson (Sinjin Jones) is similarly unimpressed with the Brussell legacy and more interested in sex with Rachel over Italian takeout.

There’s a lot going on, with several stories layered upon one another and time-swapping scenes occurring in essentially the same space. Director Len Matheo does a nice job keeping things straight, and he’s aided by some strong acting. As a last-minute fill for an injured actress, Lacy is a compelling Olivia — a tipsy has-been professor who washes up on her daughter’s shores after neglecting her for most of her life. I wanted to see a bit more spice from Boes as Brussell, but she also shows how conflicted the “queen of conspiracy” was about what she was up to.

Playing the weenie boyfriend, Jones is great. After just a little exposure to the dark world of conspiracy, he’s already scared shitless about a tunnel and a door he saw at Denver International Airport — where’s he taken a temp job as he pines for a gig at a college English department.

As a pony-tailed professor who knew Olivia, William Hahn runs away with a scene where Carson comes to his office to see if “there are any slots available.” It’s a hilarious sendup of the Boulder prof, and Hahn has a lot of fun with it. He also plays novelist Henry Miller, with whom Brussell has an affair.

Rounding out the cast is Damon Guerrasio, who plays both Carson’s doofus cohort at DIA and — wait for it — Frank Zappa. I’m not sure how much it adds to the story, but legend has it the musician once gave Brussell an early version of a PC to help her organize her files. She apparently never used it, but Guerrasio’s Zappa is a hoot.

Quick change

Queen of Conspiracy feels like it’s about three-quarters finished. It’s a fascinating topic, and Hartwell’s script is ambitious in taking Brussell’s story and tethering it to today. With two 45-minute acts, it felt a bit uneven — not enough in Act I and too much crammed into Act II. The initial setup is slow moving, and while I kept hoping to hear Brussell get on the mic and hit us with some juicy takes on the grassy knoll, we don’t get that until the top of Act II.

When I see a show called Queen of Conspiracy, I want me some plump bullshit about the fake moon landing or whatever — stat!

It seems clear that people can go from not knowing much about a conspiracy and being obsessed with it in a short space of time. But Rachel and Carson still get there too fast, and the result is a bit jarring. (Damn, the “Rachel Carson” thing just hit me!) The couple go from being a couple of workaday schlubs to full-blown Brussell Sprouts faster than you can say “Alex Jones got sued again.”

It’s where they need to go for the show’s narrative arc, but the runway just needs to be a little longer.

That aside, Queen of Conspiracy is a delightful dip into the specious world of conspiracy, where the CIA lurks behind every sudden death, the truth cannot be fully known and dark forces conspire to convince us black is white, up is down and wearing a stupid red hat will make America great again.