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Brief reviews of current shows

 Bug. At the beginning, Bug seems hyper-realistic. We're shown a drink- and drug-addled woman, Agnes, living in a motel room, which we learn is on the outskirts of Oklahoma City. We have been here before. It is -- among other things -- Sam Shepard country. A quiet young man, Peter, invades Agnes's life. When her drunken, ex-con ex-husband finally makes his entrance, Peter neither flinches away nor defends Agnes from his violence, but afterwards, he takes care of her, and the two of them end up in bed together. After what we're led to believe is mutually welcome and spiritually replenishing sex, he wakes, flailing in the darkness. There's a bug in the bed, he insists. And it's got to be killed. The action speeds up and, before our eyes, the couple begins spiraling into madness. Eventually, Agnes's cheap motel room is filled with fly swatters, a bug zapper, flypaper, chemicals and sprayers and drums of gasoline. Although there's a glimmer of political reality to Bug -- Peter claims to be an Iraq vet and the victim of government experimentation -- the play is a pretty straightforward thriller, intelligent, sometimes funny and replete with fear and blood. Chris Reid gives an extraordinary performance as Peter -- nuanced, intense, understated and dangerous. Presented by Curious Theatre Company through December 17, 1080 Acoma Street, 303-623-0524, www.curioustheatre.org. Reviewed November 10.

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 May 22, 417 East 17th Avenue, 303-321-5925, www.avenuetheater.com. Reviewed September 1.

Horror: The Transformation. This play is based on Charles Brockden Brown's Wieland, a novel published in 1798, which itself was inspired by the true story of a farmer who killed his wife and children. It's not done as a period piece, though the clothes and setting aren't strictly modern, either, and a lot of the dialogue retains an eighteenth-century focus and rhythm. The acting is somewhat naturalistic, but there are also many stylized elements. The actors all wear gloves; their eyes are heavily shadowed. Two children are represented by ingeniously constructed puppets. There are long periods during which we, the audience, sit in absolute darkness, and often the theater is filled with odd and insinuating sounds. Music. Panting. A low, breastbone-vibrating rumble. Footsteps. Instrumental shrieks. Many of the technical tricks are brilliant, and the puppet-children are eerily effective throughout. Although neither the plot of Brown's novel nor that of the play entirely holds together, the production succeeds, both as an extended rumination on the first Gothic novel ever published in America, and in creating a real sense of fear and unease in a contemporary audience. Presented by Buntport Theater in rotation with Realism: The Mythical Brontosaurus through December 10, 717 Lipan Street, 720-946-1388, www.buntport.com. Reviewed November 3.

Impulse Theater. Basements and comedy go together like beer and nuts or toddlers and sandboxes. The basement of the Wynkoop Brewing Co., 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.

The King and I. Some of the problems with this production are inherent in the show itself. With its emphasis on strong women and abhorrence of anything resembling slavery, The King and I was progressive for its time, but no artist can entirely escape the myths and preconceptions of his own culture. So Rodgers and Hammerstein showed the people of Thailand as caricatures, the women seductive and giggly, the men stiff as cardboard cutouts. The King -- in some ways and on his own terms a wonderfully humorous and quixotic character -- is still in need of civilizing. And who best to do it but a white, upper-class Englishwoman? The songs endure. No one ever wrote better love songs than Rodgers and Hammerstein. Shelly Cox-Robie makes Anna charming and radiant, and her voice is sweet and pure. Wayne Kennedy does sterling service as the King, though he makes the character funny and cuddly; there's no hint here of the dangerous, mercurial figure we expect, and that would jolt the plot into life. Presented by the Boulder Dinner Theatre through March 26, 2006, 5501 Arapahoe Avenue, Boulder, 303-449-6000, www.theatreinboulder.com. Reviewed November 10.

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