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Brief reviews of current shows

 The Last Five Years. A bittersweet account of the breakup of a five-year marriage, a specifically New York love story, The Last Five Years is told with the kind of warm, neurotic, clever-rueful Jewish humor we expect from such stories. Catherine is a young actress looking for her big break; Jamie carries the manuscript for his first novel. Their love is as much a yearning for fame and artistic fulfillment as it is for each other. Events are described almost entirely in song, and in two separate arcs: Jamie relates events chronologically; Catherine tells the story backwards, beginning with the marriage's disintegration and ending with her ecstatic ruminations after the first date. The arcs transect only once, when they marry. This crisscross device elevates what could otherwise be a banal plot, and also lends color and dimension to the twisting skein of emotion. Despite the sense of loss it conveys, this isn't a weepy show: Some of the songs are very funny, and there's a dash of early Sondheim in the cleverness of the phrasing, the way the lyrics and melodies weave the story. The two leads are excellent, but the miking is unfortunate, detracting from the intimacy of the story and distorting some notes. Presented by Modern Muse Theatre through April 9 at Buntport Theater, 717 Lipan Street, 303-780-7836, www.modernmusetheatre.com. Reviewed March 16.

Mother Courage and Her Children. Bertolt Brecht wrote Mother Courage, one of his most famous plays, in 1939, as a warning to Scandinavian countries of the inexorable forward motion of Hitler's killing machine. It's set in seventeenth-century Europe during the thirty-year war, and Mother Courage is an ambiguous and ironically named figure, a peddler who pulls her cart through war-torn lands. She symbolizes capitalism but also embodies war itself -- both its stupidity and the suffering it causes, including the loss of her three children. Brecht is famous for his theories about audience alienation; he wanted his plays to inspire analytic thought rather than empathy. Yet at the climax of the play, Mother Courage's daughter, Kattrin, breaks out of the general moral paralysis to perform an act of astonishing heroism. Mute throughout the action, she makes a huge and sudden noise, sounding the warning Brecht that intended for a sleeping Europe: Wake up. Defend yourself. The enemy is at the gate. Under the direction of Eric Prince, the company performs with conviction and integrity. Presented by Bas Bleu through April 1, 401 Pine Street, Fort Collins, 1-970-498-8949, www.basbleu.org. Reviewed March 2.

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 open-ended run, 2119 East 17th Avenue, 303-499-0383, www.playwrighttheatre.com. Reviewed November 17.

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.

The Smell of the Kill. Nicky, Molly and Debra are thrown together once a month because their husbands are friends. On this particular occasion, they cluster in the kitchen of Nicky's million-dollar home while the men practice their golf putts in the living room. The women don't particularly like each other at the beginning of the play and they're the closest friends imaginable by the end, so you could call this a female-bonding drama. Except that there's no hugging, and nary a tear in sight. And the bonding arises from a prolonged and far-from-theoretical debate about whether the women's husbands should be allowed to stay alive. Perhaps it should be troubling that by the play's end we're all rooting for a triple homicide, but how can an evening that provides so much malicious fun be wrong? Presented by the Avenue Theater through April 15, 417 East 17th Avenue, 303-321-5925, www.avenuetheater.com. Reviewed February 23.

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