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Brief reviews of current shows

The Caretaker. The setting is a grimy, one-room flat filled with papers, boxes and mismatched bric-a-brac. It's an appropriate mole hole for sad, befuddled Aston, who thinks he's good with his hands, tinkers constantly with a screwdriver and dreams about building a shed in the yard -- but it also serves as a metaphor for the inside of his disheveled mind. At the play's beginning, a leather-jacketed man stands dead center. This is Mick, Aston's brother and the owner of the building. He leaves and Aston enters with Davies, an old tramp he has rescued and brought home with him. Although the plot of The Caretaker doesn't entirely make linear sense -- all three characters engage in elaborate self-deceptions, and two of them use language more to confuse than to illuminate -- the play isn't really that opaque, and it involves a constant shifting of power. At the beginning, Davies seems grateful to Aston for taking him in, but he soon turns bullying and querulous. Both Aston and Mick offer him a job as caretaker, and he starts playing the brothers against each other. Under the direction of Terry Dodd, the actors give intense and absorbing performances that acknowledge the play's subtleties and subtext without stinting on its twisted passions. Presented by Paragon Theatre Company through July 1, Phoenix Theatre, 1124 Santa Fe Drive, 303-300-2210, www.paragontheatre.com. Reviewed June 8.

Crowns. The music in this piece-- gospel songs and spirituals, church music with a touch of rap -- includes such well-known pieces as "His Eye Is on the Sparrow" and "When the Saints Go Marchin' In," as well as several less familiar songs, and it is just as lively, moving, rousing and enjoyable as you'd expect. Director Kent Gash has assembled a group of performers with voices of extraordinary range, power and sweetness. All of them are also stylish and talented actors, capable of both humor and pathos. But there's no there here, no play. Crownsis about a concept. The African-American ritual of dressing up for church is a potent and evocative one. It carries a story about African tradition married to contemporary pride and vanity, about an oppressed people who found solace and spirit in church, about the hat as both an assertion of individuality and a humble tribute to God. But ideas alone can't sustain an evening of theater. They need to be married to plot and dialogue. The action begins when a young girl from Brooklyn, Yolanda, loses her brother to violence. Half mad with grief, she is shipped off to stay with her grandmother, Mother Shaw, in South Carolina. She also meets four women, all of whom have stories to share about life, faith and hats. Yolanda -- whose headgear is a sideways baseball cap -- comes to appreciate the women's strength, their work on behalf of civil rights, the community they form. The play's structure is based on a church service, but such services are very predictable in tone. The characters are symbols rather than people, and the dialogue never rises above the level of a Hallmark card. Presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company through June 18, Stage Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org. Reviewed June 1.

Fiction. Michael and Linda, both novelists, are long and happily married. But Linda has just been diagnosed with a brain tumor and told she has three weeks to live. She knows the kind of story almost everyone with a terminal diagnosis hears again and again -- the exciting new treatment for a disease hitherto seen as incurable, or the sudden, medically inexplicable remission -- but unfortunately, she's too damn smart to believe anything this cliched. Accepting the reality of her situation, she asks Michael to read her diaries after her death. And she also wants to read his. This request sets the theme and structure for Steven Dietz's well-designed play. Linda discovers that Michael had an affair with Abby, an enigmatic young woman at a writers' colony; rapturous passages about Abby fill Michael's diaries. But when confronted, Michael says the ongoing affair was pure invention. Dietz wrote Fictionlong before the furor over James Frey's pseudo-memoir, A Million Little Pieces, but he anticipated much of the current discussion over the veracity of memoir as a literary form. He suggests that writing itself is a dishonest act: Michael sells out his idealistic younger self to become the kind of best-selling, blockbuster-a-year novelist he once despised; Linda's achievement is unquestionably literary, but she's famous because of the general belief that she herself endured the horrors her central character suffered, which may not be the case. These are not deep characters; they exist at the service of ideas. But they are also charming and fun to watch. The script and the action are fascinating, and director Jamie Horton has assembled a first-rate cast. Presented by Curious Theatre Company through June 24, 1080 Acoma Street, 303-623-0524, www.curioustheatre.org. Reviewed May 25.

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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