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Brief reviews of current shows.

 Assassins. Assassins seethes through the mind like an unsettling wind, hurling aside platitude and raising a host of tormenting questions. This brilliant musical by John Weidman and Stephen Sondheim is exactly the kind of project local companies should be undertaking. It tells the story of nine people who either assassinated or attempted to assassinate a president, from John Wilkes Booth, murderer of Abraham Lincoln and spiritual father to the act in America, to the disheveled Sara Jane Moore, who pointed a gun at President Gerald Ford in 1975. The action begins as a carnival barker paces a gaudy, flag-draped stage with an electric chair at one side and a noose on the other, inviting onlookers to "Come on and shoot a president." The assassins interact with each other across the shoals of time, and their biographies are revealed in dialogue and song. The scenes balance between hilarity and horror without ever losing their footing. Irony abounds. The tenderest, most beautiful piece of music in the show is "Unworthy of Your Love," sung as a duet by Squeaky Fromme and John Hinckley. She's addressing Charles Manson, and he Jodie Foster. Assassins invokes two Americas: One is the America of baseball games and green meadows, small towns and patriotic songs, the second another country altogether -- a violent, chaotic country of huge inequalities and unsustainable fantasies, an America that worships force, iconizes the gun and nurtures the hallucinatory dreams of madmen. Next Stage took a huge risk in staging a full-fledged musical of this complexity in a small space with limited resources, but the production works, and it includes some standout performances. Presented by Next Stage through September 24, Phoenix Theatre, 1124 Santa Fe Drive, 720-209-4105, www.nextstagedenver.com. Reviewed September 15.

The Fourth Wall. Playwright A.R. Gurney is a courteous, upper-crust kind of guy, so when he found himself enraged by national politics, he didn't respond with agitprop or searing realism. Instead he imagined a comfortably middle-class housewife, Peggy, who -- by way of protest -- rearranges all the furniture in her living room so that it faces an imaginary theatrical fourth wall. Pretty soon, anyone entering Peggy's living room begins behaving like a character on a stage, and the resultant mix of realism and the actors' frantic bouts of self-aware staginess creates a cascade of evocative moments and clever jokes. There's also a piano that plays Cole Porter all by itself. As interior designer Julia preens and poses, Peggy's husband attempts to understand her and theater professor Floyd urges Peggy to explore new forms of theater, Peggy herself stays true to her vision. She believes that beyond her sheltered world there are people of every race and nationality who can be persuaded to march on Washington and halt the madness of George W. Bush's foreign policy. This production focuses more on surface comedy than on Peggy's rage and sadness, however, which makes it amusing but ultimately inconsequential. Presented by the Avenue Theater through October 1, 417 East 17th Avenue, 303-321-5925, www.avenuetheater.com. Reviewed September 1.

Heartbreak House. Heartbreak House offers a full helping of George Bernard Shaw's wit, humor and trenchant intelligence; as produced by Germinal, it's also charming, sexy and delightful. Heartbreak House itself is a metaphor for the English upper class pre-World War I, and the play was influenced by Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard. Like Chekhov, Shaw knew -- as his characters didn't -- that their smug, safe little world was about to vanish. The two most telling figures are Captain Shotover, the half-loony, half-wise retired seafarer who owns Heartbreak House, and Ellie Dunn, one of those marvelously smart and spunky Shavian heroines. Ellie believes her fiancé, Mangan, to be a good man who rescued her kindly father, Mazzini, from penury. But she loves Hector, who won her, as Othello won Desdemona, with stories of wonder and conquest. Having arrived at Heartbreak House at the invitation of Shotover's daughter Hesione, Ellie rapidly discovers that Hector is Hesione's husband and his stories are lies. And she finds that Mangan is no benefactor, but someone who deliberately cheated her father. The plot also involves Hesione's authoritarian and peremptory sister, Ariadne, who arrives unexpectedly from India after a two-decade absence. A great deal of philosophizing and flirting ensues. There's no real resolution, only a group of people facing the unknown. Presented by Germinal Stage Denver through October 9, 2450 West 44th Avenue, 303-455-7108, www.germinalstage.com.

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., 1634 18th Street, 303-297-2111 or www.impulsetheater.com. Reviewed June 3.

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