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Brief reviews of current shows

Bug. At the beginning, Bugseems 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, 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.

A Christmas Carol. Written by Richard Hellesen with music by David de Berry, this Christmas Carol has its strengths. It's respectful of the novel, using much of Dickens's original dialogue and description to tell the tale of the miserly businessman, Scrooge, and his conversion to kindness by the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Yet To Come. Also to their credit, Hellesen and de Berry have chosen to retain the dark side of the story and to honor Dickens's social conscience, rather than mounting a production that's purely sweetness and light. The set is charming, and the special effects work well. But this version also feels heavier and more sentimental than the one by Laird Williamson and Dennis Powers that it replaces at the Denver Center, and there are also a few howlers. Why, for instance, costume the Ghost of Christmas Past like some odd combination of golden-haired Vegas showgirl and Glinda the Good Witch? The cast's English accents are all over the place, and Tiny Tim is made so peripheral to the action that he seems almost an afterthought. Presented by The Denver Center Theatre Company through December 24, Stage Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org. Reviewed December 8.

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.

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 Boulder's Dinner Theatre through March 26, 5501 Arapahoe Avenue, Boulder, 303-449-6000, www.theatreinboulder.com. Reviewed November 10.

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