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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.

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.

Four Queens - No Trump. The scene is Deola's dog-grooming salon, where Deola is also setting herself up as a psychic. Three of her friends meet here weekly to play bid whist, and on this occasion they are joined by a fourth, Edna, a newly divorced friend of Deola's from Texas. Much of the first act revolves around the game, apparently a tradition in many African-American circles -- a raucous, competitive, high-spirited tradition that calls for equal parts aggression and finesse. The script has a few weaknesses, but it's also funny and good-natured, and writer-director Ted Lange has assembled a group of high-spirited divas to perform it. You know that any play featuring four women is going to cover certain topics -- tight shoes, saggy breasts, food, sex and men -- but at least this one puts its own spin on them. The plot gets more contrived and less interesting when Edna falls for Jefferson, a high school history teacher. Overall, though, this is a party you don't want to miss. Presented by Shadow Theatre Company through July 1, Ralph Waldo Emerson Center, 1420 Ogden Street, 303-837-9355, www.shadowtheatre.com. Reviewed June 15.

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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