Encore

 Humble Boy. Although Humble Boy is literate, with eccentric characters, some absorbing scenes and occasional unexpected moments, somehow the structure doesn't hang together. And all the esoteric talk about space and time and the habits of bees seems more an attempt by playwright Charlotte Jones to impress the viewer than a means of adding resonance. Felix Humble, a brilliant young scientist, returns home from the university; his father has just died, and his mother is planning a rapid remarriage. If this sounds familiar, there's a reason: Jones is evoking the plot of Hamlet. Flora Humble is the queen bee who detaches her suitors' genitalia in the act of love. She's selfish, rude and easily the most entertaining character in the play. Her boyfriend is George Pye, a loud, vulgar Aussie, as different from her deceased husband -- who was a keeper of bees -- as humanly possible. The Hamlet connection is a mixed blessing: If it does sometimes stir up an interesting association, it also serves as a constant reminder of a play with a power and scope that dwarf Humble Boy. Presented by Firehouse Theater Company through July 16, John Hand Theater, 7653 East First Place, 303-562-3232. Reviewed June 23.

Impulse Theater. Basements and comedy go together like beer and nuts or toddlers and sandboxes. The basement of the Wynkoop Brewery where Impulse Theater performs is crowded, loud and energetic. Impulse does no prepared skits, nothing but pure improv -- which means that what you see changes every night, and so does the team of actors. These actors set up and follow certain rules and frameworks; they rely on audience suggestions to get these scenes going or to vary the action. Your level of enjoyment depends a lot on whether or not you like the players. Charm is a factor, and so is the ability to take risks. Fortunately, the performers are clever and fast on their feet, willing to throw themselves into the action but never betraying tension or anxiety, perfectly content to shrug off a piece that isn't coming together. The show is funny when the actors hit a groove, but equally funny when they get stymied. So, in a way, the improvisers -- and the audience -- can't lose. Presented by Impulse Theater in an open-ended run, Wynkoop Brewing Co., 18th and Wynkoop streets, 303-297-2111 or www.impulsetheater.com. Reviewed June 3.

Independence. Independence is a story about three very different young women and their terrifyingly possessive, half-mad mother, Evelyn. Kess, the oldest daughter, hadn't been in touch with her mother for four years. At the beginning of the play, she returns to the family fold because of a frantic phone call from her younger sister Jo, who says Evelyn tried to kill her. Sherry, the youngest of the three sisters, is nineteen and about to graduate from high school, but she behaves like an angry, promiscuous thirteen-year-old. Independence is very absorbing to watch; it's smart and the rhythm of the dialogue is compelling. On one level, it provides the same kind of pleasure you get from watching Jerry Springer or reality TV, the feeling of superiority engendered by seeing other people behaving very, very badly. What makes the play credible is our knowledge that people like Evelyn -- people whose greedy self-absorption is so intertwined with their madness that no one can tell which is which -- do exist. The characters also possess enough psychological complexity to keep you riveted. Ed Baierlein directs with unobtrusive skill, and he has assembled a cast that makes each character vital and specific. Presented by Germinal Stage Denver through July 10, 2450 West 44th Avenue, 303-455-7108, www.germinalstage.com. Reviewed June 23.

The Mercy Seat. What kind of person would seize on a disaster of the magnitude of September 11 to further an extramarital affair? With New York in chaos around him, Ben Harcourt has seen an opportunity to leave his wife, who will assume he has died, and start a new life with his lover, Abby. He refers to the attack, without irony, as an opportunity that "fell right into our laps." Playwright Neil LaBute is best known for the film In the Company of Men, which depicts the amoral behavior of young men in the corporate world. He is famed for the savagery with which he explores the squirmier and more equivocal parts of the human psyche. In The Mercy Seat, he has created a couple of contemptible people; his genius is to have made them comprehensible, even intermittently likable. The play brilliantly catches the rhythms of a failing relationship, the words misinterpreted, the moments of compromise shattered by a clumsy observation or flash of malice. The usual jostling for power between lovers is exacerbated here by the fact that Abby is older than Ben, and is his boss. Paragon Theatre director Warren Sherrill has mounted a first-rate production of this refreshingly abrasive play. Presented by Paragon Theatre Company through July 2, Phoenix Theatre, 1124 Santa Fe Drive, 303-300-2210, www.paragontheatre.com. Reviewed June 9.

My Way: A Musical Tribute to Frank Sinatra. The Denver Center production of My Way features four attractive, energetic performers with strong and differing voices; 53 of the best twentieth-century songs; a set that's beautifully designed both to please the contemporary eye and to evoke the period, with softened Formica colors flowing into each other and elegant forms; witty, attractive costumes; and three excellent musicians. So if you're entertaining a business client or out on a date, this is the show for you. But it's essentially a commercial enterprise rather than an evening of theater. The performers don't just sing the songs, they sell them. They're full of energy. They bounce. They emote. They never allow a moment of reflection or understatement. Sinatra was the guy sitting alone on a barstool in a pool of light, shadows pressing in on him, the rakish angle of his hat belying the world-weariness of his soul. This seems an odd way to pay him homage. Presented by Denver Center Attractions in an open-ended run, Galleria Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org. Reviewed June 9.

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