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Brief reviews of current shows

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. This is one ugly family that's gathered in Big Daddy's Mississippi Delta home to celebrate the patriarch's 65th birthday. What almost everyone except Big Daddy himself knows is that he's dying of cancer. There's Big Mama, operating in an acute state of denial; son Gooper, accompanied by his fecund wife, Mae and brood of children; and Brick, the favored son of Big Daddy and Big Mama, attempting to drink himself into oblivion. Watching everyone with a calculating eye is Maggie, Brick's sexy wife, who's determined that Brick, rather than Gooper, will inherit the family's huge wealth. We're in Tennessee Williams's South, an overheated place seething with rage, sexual repression and what Brick and Big Daddy call "mendacity." The characters are totemic, the language passionate and poetic. This production is prosaic, however, with the exception of Chris Reid's white-hot performance as Brick. Reid knows when to hold back and when to explode. He knows how to deal with silence -- whether using it as a weapon or a shield, or simply vanishing into it. When an actor works from a place this deep, he can't put a foot wrong. Presented by the Aurora Fox Arts Center through May 13, 9900 East Colfax Avenue, Aurora. 303-739-1970, www.auroragov.org. Reviewed April 19.

Moby Dick Unread. When the Buntporters say that you don't have to have read the novel to enjoy their Moby Dick Unread, they're telling the truth. This play is as inventive as everything the company does, making clever use of space arrangements and objects (a rope ladder, buckets of water suspended from the ceiling), and combining parody and homage. As always, the actors create their low-tech special effects with what seems like touching earnestness while their faces and bodies comment ironically on those effects. "We're making do," various members of the cast keep telling us after particularly iffy or unexpected pieces of business. Because the style is so unpretentious, the heavy subject matter seems light and palatable, yet it's never trivialized. And the prologue, which uses an aquarium and a wind-up toy whale to present the entire action of the play, is worth the price of admission. Presented by Buntport Theater Company through April 28, 717 Lipan Street, 720-946-1388, www.buntport.com. Reviewed April 12.

Ragtime. With this show, it feels as if Boulder's Dinner Theatre has opened the doors and let in a great whoosh of invigorating air. Artistic director Michael J. Duran picked one hell of a musical to stage, one that's based on an important book and marries a meaningful plot with a smart, perceptive script and terrific songs. Knowing he'd have trouble finding a full cast for Ragtime-- several of the most important characters are African-American -- he teamed up with Jeffrey Nickelson of Shadow Theatre Company and ended up hiring several Shadow actors, with Nickelson himself playing the enigmatic angel-devil Coalhouse Walker. The energy and discovery created by this fusion of talents is palpable on the stage. E. L. Doctorow's novel is about the lives of differing groups in America: citizen and immigrant, white and black, the privileged and the poor; historical events and specific historical figures are also woven into the action. This production is a joy, buoyed by strong performances, crammed with memorable moments and featuring musical numbers that span the spectrum from meltingly lovely to funny to wildly exhilarating. Presented by Boulder's Dinner Theatre through May 26, 5501 Arapahoe Avenue, Boulder, 303-449-6000, www.theatreinboulder.com. Reviewed March 22.

The Sweetest Swing in Baseball. Most fictional characters who find themselves in mental institutions struggle to get out, but when Dana Fielding, this play's artist-protagonist, arrives in one after a suicide attempt, she settles right in. Battered by the response to her latest exhibit, a couple of negative reviews and a general sense that her career is over -- not to mention the fact that her longtime lover has just left her -- Dana welcomes the shelter provided by the hospital. She quickly finds common ground with two fellow residents -- a homicidal psychotic named Gary, and Michael, a sweet-natured gay alcoholic. But Dana's insurance company will pay for no more than ten days of rehabilitation and, desperate to stay, she decides to pretend she's delusional. Helped by the advice of her new friends, she identifies herself to her therapist as Darryl Strawberry -- and impersonating the alcohol-plagued baseball star gives her courage and a sense of freedom. Director Wendy C. Goldberg has created a production as bright, clean and lively as a cartoon strip. Presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company through May 26, Ricketson Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org. Reviewed April 19.

 
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