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Brief reviews of current shows

 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 Frozen is 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.

Gem of the Ocean. August Wilson set out to write the history of black Americans in the twentieth century in ten plays -- all but one of them set in Pittsburgh's Hill District -- and managed to complete the cycle before dying last fall. Gem of the Ocean is the ninth of these plays, but the first chronologically (it's set in 1904). It's also the only play in which we see the mythical Aunt Ester, whose name is frequently invoked in Wilson's work, in the flesh. The action takes place in Ester's home, which serves as a sanctuary during the troubled period following slavery. On the premises live Black Mary -- a young woman who spends her time cooking, cleaning, doing laundry and serving the others, and who is treated by Aunt Ester with uncharacteristic harshness -- and the wise and phlegmatic Eli. The household gets periodic visits from Rutherford Selig, an itinerant tinker, and Solly Two Kings, a veteran of the underground railroad. And a young man has also been haunting the place, begging to see Aunt Ester because, he says, he needs his soul washed. Wilson takes ideas and images from myth, folk tales and the Bible, shifting them slightly, adding his own weight and shading to create an evangelical play in the best sense of the word. Gem of the Ocean is transformative, a call to action, a paean of praise to freedom -- not the ersatz freedom of political speeches, but the limitless, wild thing itself. Director Israel Hicks has assembled a superb cast for this production, and their performance is an act of tribute and of love. Presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company through February 25, Space Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org. Reviewed February 9.

The Holdup. Written by Pulitzer-winning playwright Marsha Norman, The Holdup is 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.

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