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Brief reviews of current shows

Bright Room Called Day. Tony Kushner, author of the brilliant Angels in America, clearly wrote A Bright Room Called Day in a state of agitation. Kushner sensed the blot of fascism spreading across America, and he drew an analogy -- by no means original -- between 1930s Germany and Reagan's United States. Much of Bright Room is set in 1932-'33, and dramatizes Germany's descent into darkness. A young, contemporary woman, Zillah Katz, is our guide on this journey. She strides about the stage, exhorting the audience to greater awareness; she's become riveted by the face of a woman in an old photograph. This frames a series of scenes featuring the woman in the photo -- whose name, we learn, is Agnes -- and her friends. When an artist of Kushner's stature sounds the alarm (he's urged theater companies to update the play to reflect current realities), we ought to listen, even if there's not really an idea or analogy in Bright Roomthat most thinking people haven't already entertained. Nonetheless, this is an important play, and an excellent production. Presented by OpenStage Theatre & Company through February 4, Lincoln Center, 417 West Magnolia Street, Fort Collins, 1-970-221-6730, www.openstage.com. Reviewed January 19.

Frozen. It's hard to deal with murder -- particularly the rape, murder and dismemberment of a child -- without being exploitative. It's hard to explore the issue of forgiveness without sentimentality. But Bryony Lavery's Frozen succeeds on both counts. The title of the three-character play -- involving the child murderer, Ralph; Nancy, the mother of one of his victims; and a psychiatrist, Agnetha, who studies serial killers -- refers both to the morally and emotionally frozen world in which such killers live, and to Nancy's life, which has essentially stopped since the death of her ten-year-old daughter, Rhona. The play begins with a series of monologues, and it's clear each of the characters feels atomized and alone. When Agnetha gives a presentation, Ralph serves as an apparently non-sentient model while she points out various aspects of his cranium. It's only after this that the two of them speak, and the build begins to the scene we know is inevitable, the scene when Nancy and Ralph meet. (William Hahn is riveting as Ralph.) With the exception of a couple of key scenes, the feeling in Frozenis deliberately tamped down, but Lavery's distancing allows us to take in subject matter that would otherwise swamp the senses. Presented by Curious Theatre Company through February 25, 1080 Acoma Street, 303-623-0524. www.curioustheatre.org. Reviewed January 19.

The Holdup. Written by Pulitzer-winning playwright Marsha Norman, The Holdupis a small, charming piece about the myth of the Old West -- or rather, the passing of that myth. The play, set in 1914, opens in darkness as we hear the sad voice of someone preparing to shoot an ailing horse. Then there's another voice, someone making his way to the safety of a cook shack, afraid of a large coyote that's dogging his steps. The second speaker is Archie Tucker, seventeen years old and a timid being who hates violence. Archie's brother, Henry, is a bully and an avid reader of books about famous outlaws. He's hectoring his brother when one of these lawbreakers intrudes in the flesh -- tall, laconic and fast on the draw. The fourth character is Lily, a prostitute-turned-hotel-owner who has always loved the Outlaw. This script could use a bit of pruning, but The Holdup remains entertaining theater. Presented by the Denver Victorian Playhouse through February 18, 4201 Hooker Street, 303-433-4343, www.denvervic.com.

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.

Jesus Hates Me. Ethan lives with his religion-obsessed mother, Annie, in a trailer on a Jesus-themed golf course in rural Texas, where Jesus and his apostles are represented by appropriately dressed (or undressed) store dummies. The sheriff, Trane, is African-American and Ethan's best friend; he's on the hunt for the kidnapper of a little Vietnamese girl. There's also Lizzy, with whom Ethan once had sex; dopey Boone, who ends up in bed with Annie; and Georgie, who tried to kill himself during high school graduation and now -- in one of the script's truly inspired bits -- speaks through a voice box in a strange, low-pitched, mechanized tone that never fails to get a laugh. Parts of the play, now in a world premiere at the Denver Center Theatre Company, are very funny. Other moments sound soggy and Hollywoodish, too sitcom-sincere for the would-be outrageous setting. The action lurches from the rollicking hijinks of the twenty-somethings to the closet scene from Hamlet -- son accusing mother, mother accusing son, incestuous overtones. It's hard to care about the characters, and there's something seriously wrong when the protagonist is feeling more pity for himself than you can muster up for him. Presented through March 11 at the Ricketson Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org. Reviewed January 26.

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