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Brief reviews of current shows

King Lear. Perhaps Shakespeare's bleakest tragedy, King Lear begins with the symmetry and simplicity of folk and fairy tale. Lear, an aging king, conducts a ceremony to divide his kingdom among his three daughters -- but when his youngest, Cordelia, angers him, the plot becomes complex, rich and universal. The result of Lear's fury is violence and pain, the soul-deep testing of everyone around him and, ultimately, the dissolution of both his own mind and his kingdom. Philip Pleasants is an interesting Lear. Though he tends to declaim too much at the beginning, he comes into his own later in the play. The scene in which Lear, now completely mad, gesticulating like a demented marionette and crowned in flowers, meets up with the blinded Earl of Gloucester on the heath is both touching and original. The rest of the cast displays various levels of comfort and skill with Shakespeare. This is not a revelatory King Lear, but in paying close attention to the music and the meaning of the play, artistic director Kent Thompson has created a very creditable production. Presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company through February 24, Stage Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org. Reviewed February 15.

1001. Jason Grote's story of Scheherazade and her 1001 nights is presented in a deliberately arch and overdone way in this world premiere. A doomed bride flits around like a breathless high-school girl; a eunuch affects a comically high-pitched voice; we listen to a lisped tongue twister of almost unendurable dopiness. The disjointedness is intentional; there are hints all along the way that some other reality is stuttering beneath the surface. Then we're in New York, and Grote embeds a contemporary Jewish-Palestinian love affair in a web of allusions, metaphors, stories and references, from Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran to Edward Said's Orientalism, but he focuses less on political and historical realities than on the swirl of myth and fairy tale that characterizes the West's conception of the East. Under the direction of Ethan McSweeny, all of the actors are vital and convincing. The terrific sound is provided by a live DJ, Sara Thurston. Presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company through February 24, Space Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org. Reviewed February 1.

The Pillowman. The play takes place in an unnamed totalitarian society where the protagonist, Katurian, is being interrogated by two cops. Katurian's crime: He has written hundreds of stories in which children are killed, and someone has been imitating the methods in the stories and leaving little corpses around town. Katurian has a brother, Michal, brain-damaged because of the torture inflicted on him as a child by their parents. Violence is the primary focus of The Pillowman, but there's also a wistful, wavering undercurrent, a hope that children might somehow find sanctuary, even if it's in the arms of grotesque killer-cum-savior the Pillowman. One reason all of this is less upsetting than you'd expect is that the murder stories are narrated in the arch, unreal style of fairytales, and the brutality is also deliberately undercut by cynical jokes in the style of such movies as GoodFellas, Reservoir Dogs and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. As in these films, there's no moral center, and we're encouraged to empathize not with the victims, but with the wisecracking style of their attackers. This is also a play about the provenance, power and necessity of stories, and all of the characters are motivated and sustained by the narratives they spin for themselves. There's real originality, energy, subtlety and surprise here, and the play would have a lot more impact if it weren't for the cast's lack of fire. Presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company through February 24, Ricketson Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org. Reviewed January 25.

Pure Piaf. This show is hugely miked and, as if the unnecessary loudness weren't distraction enough, Alex Ryer is in constant movement -- mike visible against her face -- as she turns little circles, gesturing, floats her mantilla-like shawl about her shoulders, walks out into the audience, and at one point sinks to her knees and sobs. The singer has researched Edith Piaf's biography, and the facts she gives are accurate. But the show is repetitive and loosely structured, and the story told without irony or humor and with a terrible self-pity. Ryer can't leave a song alone. She'll start singing one of the great ones -- "Milord," for example -- and then begin talking and talking in her unconvincing French accent until, despite the impeccable playing of her five musicians, all life and integrity has been leached from the number. Presented by the New Denver Civic Theatre through February 25, 721 Santa Fe Drive, 303-309-3773, www.denvercivic.com. Reviewed February 8.

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