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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 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.

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 Oceanis 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 Oceanis 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.

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.

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.

Measure for Measure. Shakespeare's Measure for Measure is considered a comedy because nobody important dies in it and all the protagonists couple at the end, but like The Merchant of Venice, it's a shadowed comedy; at every turn, the plot threatens to tumble into tragedy. Kent Thompson has placed his version in fin de siècle Vienna, a setting that -- with its waltzes and colorful curlicued designs -- buoys the lighter parts of the play. But even as Vienna's citizens enjoy their chocolate-box culture, we know that World War I and the end of the Austro-Hungarian empire loom. The Duke of Vienna has allowed licentiousness to flourish, and it is now out of control. Feeling he can't lower the boom himself, the Duke decides to leave town for a while, placing his deputy, Angelo, in power. One of Angelo's first acts is to sentence a young man, Claudio, to death for impregnating his betrothed. Claudio's sister, Isabella, is about to enter a nunnery. Told of her brother's arrest, she hurries to the deputy to plead for his life. Angelo falls for her, promising to spare Claudio if she'll sleep with him. Thompson's interpretation shines new light on the trickier aspects of this plot. His Duke is a good-natured bumbler, and he has also chosen to stress the nastiness of the Viennese underworld rather than make its pimps and whores humorously appealing. This is a beautifully conceived production, beautifully played. Presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company through February 25, Stage Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org. Reviewed February 16.

Party of 1. This is a good play to go to with a date, or to attend in hopes of finding one. The show is a sequence of cabaret songs dedicated to the joys and pains of singlehood, slightly reminiscent of I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change, though without the monologues; fizzier and more light-hearted than Sex and the City, but less weighted with ego and pretension. Four appealing people spin through songs with topics ranging from the insecurities raised by meet-and-mingle functions to the intense ambivalence you feel when someone with whom you're having a great relationship actually takes the next step and moves into your apartment. Party of 1 ran forever in the Bay Area, where writer-composer Morris Bobrow is famed for his clever lyrics and bright, listenable tunes. Good-natured and enjoyable, with just an edge of grown-up irony, the show deserves its popularity. Presented by the Playwright Theatre in an indefinite run, 2119 East 17th Avenue, 303-499-0383, www.playwrighttheatre.com. Reviewed November 17.

The Raft. There's one slightly original element in this play: three "Gazes" who surround the central character and apparently represent the critical and unhelpful voices of other people. But otherwise, this is a shallow, sloppily written script that relies on cultural cliches. Marta is attempting to cope with a mid-life crisis by lying around in bed eating chocolate and drinking wine -- Menopause the Musicalwithout the songs. Marta's highly ambitious sister, Elan, is pushing her daughter to attend an Ivy League college and sneering at the University of Colorado, where Marta's two sons appear to be partying and pot-smoking their youth away -- at least until the younger son gets his lover pregnant. Many moments strain credulity, and the plot keeps shedding all over the stage. There's also some real tone-deafness here: No one should be subjected to such pseudo-philosophical lines as "What's your raft?" Presented by Modern Muse Theatre Company through February 26, Bug Theatre, 3654 Navajo Street, 303-780-7836, www.modernmusetheatre.com. Reviewed February 9.

Red Scare. This is a hit-and-miss proposition, with mildly amusing moments alternating with laugh-yourself-silly skits and a few out-and-out clunkers. There's nothing particularly sophisticated, surprising or cutting-edge about the renowned Second City's Red Scare, but there is some funny stuff. In one scene, a teacher in a rough school comes into her classroom after hours to find a student planning to rifle her purse -- but in the end, he tells her in song, he couldn't steal from her because "I Saw Your Paycheck." In another, a suicidal Shakespearean heroine is talked out of her despair by a sassy gay friend. There's a good sketch about the exaggerated way white people talk to their black co-workers; a sad-funny bit involving a coach and his cancer-stricken wife; a monologue in which the talented Amber Ruffin gives grandmotherly advice about marriage and childbirth. Presented by Denver Center Attractions through May 21, Garner Galleria Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org. Reviewed February 16.

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