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Brief reviews of current shows

 The Clean House. The first act of Sarah Ruhl's The Clean House is close to a perfect piece of theater. On a stunningly evocative, elegantly gray-and-white set, Matilde cleans house for a pair of doctors -- Lane and her surgeon husband, Charles. Matilde hates to clean. She wants to figure out the world's funniest joke. Lane believes in household order, hierarchy and status. But her sister, Virginia, who loves cleaning as much as Matilde loathes it, has a more democratic outlook. For her, mopping, sweeping and chasing dust bunnies are a means of keeping life's ugliness and fear at bay. Secretly, she offers to do Matilde's job for her. The first act concludes soon after Lane's discovery that Charles has fallen in love with a 67-year-old woman on whom he's performed a mastectomy. But the second act gets soggy. Charles's extramarital beloved is Ana, an Argentine woman we're supposed to see as representing some kind of cosmic life force. Perhaps it is possible to transcend death; perhaps humor is indeed the key. But before you transcend it, you have face it full-on. The Clean House never evokes the real horror and ugliness of dying, just dances around the process waving gossamer strands of whimsy. Presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company through April 22, Stage Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org .

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 Ladies of the Camellias. At the end of the nineteenth century, Sarah Bernhardt was the grande dame of French theater and Eleonora Duse her Italian counterpart. Playwright Lillian Groag has created an imaginary meeting of these great stars as they prepare for separate performances of La Dame Aux Camelias in Bernhardt's Théâtre de la Renaissance in Paris. Into this hermetic, self-important, backstage setting blows a chill, bracing wind: Ivan, a Russian anarchist who plans to hold Bernhardt and Duse hostage until his comrades are released from prison. The script is literate, knowledgeable and often funny, but it isn't swift and tight enough to work as out-and-out farce; by the second act, the plot has dissolved into a welter of words as Bernhardt and Duse repeat the same arguments and act out bits of Shakespeare. And when Ivan turns out to be not a revolutionary at all, but only a sulky and frustrated theater director, whatever air is left whooshes out of the play. While Groag demonstrates convincingly that theater does endure over time, she never proves that it matters in the slightest. Presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company through April 22, Space Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org. Reviewed April 6.

Man of La Mancha. Creaking and shuddering, a ladder descends, admitting the sixteenth-century author Cervantes and his manservant into what looks like one of the lower circles of hell. There he will remain at the pleasure of the Spanish Inquisition, he's told, for perhaps an hour, perhaps a lifetime. To mollify his fellow prisoners, Cervantes tells them the story of his novel, which concerns Don Quixote, a country gentleman infatuated with the age of chivalry who imagines himself a knight errant, and who sets out on a quest with his servant, Sancho Panza. Quixote sees a small country inn as a castle, a barber's bowl as a helmet, a brutalized prostitute, Aldonza, as his fair lady, Dulcinea. Periodically, however, his fantasies desert him, and he's forced to deal with the wretched world that everyone else around him sees only too clearly. Some of the songs in this musical edge toward sentimentality, but the script does not downplay the horrors of Cervantes's time -- the casual brutality, the miserable lives of the poor, the terror of the Inquisition. This Country Dinner Playhouse production of the musical is full of fine performances and good voices, and though there's hope at the end, it feels as insubstantial as Quixote's dreams -- but perhaps also as enduring. Presented through May 14 at Country Dinner Playhouse, 6875 South Clinton Street, Greenwood Village, 303-799-1410, www.countrydinnerplayhouse.com. Reviewed March 30.

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