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Brief reviews of current shows

Dead Man Walking. We are one of the last Western nations to retain the death penalty, but you don't hear much about it these days. Where executions were once front-page news, they're now relegated to single paragraphs far back in the paper -- if they're mentioned at all. In an attempt to bring light to the subject, Sister Helen Prejean published Dead Man Walking, an account of her work with death-row inmates; the book became a film in 1996. Actor Tim Robbins's version of the script is agitprop, though agitprop in an honorable tradition. It shows Sister Prejean, played here by Terry Ann Watts, being drawn inexorably into contact with Matt Poncelet, who killed a teenage boy and raped the boy's companion, then stood by while his partner murdered her. Scene by scene, we're led through the issues surrounding capital punishment: The loneliness of death row inmates and the inhuman bureaucratic process that has a living man measured for his coffin are weighed against the agony of the victims' families and their demands for revenge. We're also privy to Sister Prejean's spiritual uncertainty in the face of all this, and her determination to bring something human -- empathy, conversation, a piece of music -- into the gray, equivocal world of death row. Although Watts gives a beautiful performance and Steve Pardun holds up his end as Poncelet, most of the rest of the cast seems to comprise non-actors, and this, coupled with the fact that the script needs trimming, makes for a long evening. Still, the Victorian should be commended for bringing attention to this important issue. Presented by Glass Slipper Productions and the Denver Victorian Playhouse through June 3, 4201 Hooker Street, 303-433-4343, www.denvervic.com. Reviewed April 26.

How We May Know Him. This is an original play by a local author that tells the story of four women: Val, a Christian zealot who stalks the stage in a stifling, fustian dress; Simone, a new-agey television host, desperately concerned with her appearance; Nicola, a soldier of fortune who works for a shadowy Blackwater-type corporation; and Nicola's partner, the sometimes waspish but usually lost and bemused Wren. Although all of these women are beautifully portrayed in the Paragon production, you're not called on to empathize with any of them. This brain-tease of a play acts on your cerebral cortex, not your guts, and the plot raises more questions than it answers. It is indubitably about evil, and Val, superbly and implacably played by Emily Paton Davies, is its apotheosis. But though she has an antagonist in the form of Nicola, this is not a straightforward battle between good and evil. Nicola is hardly a shining, avenging angel; she's a paid mercenary. Despite all the metaphoric stuff, the script is anything but murky. It's razor sharp, and often funny in completely unexpected ways. In all, a seamlessly riveting production. Presented through May 19 by Paragon Theatre, Phoenix Theatre, 1124 Santa Fe Drive, 303-300-2210, www.paragontheatre.com. Reviewed May 3.

Mall*Mart, the Musical! Curious Theatre's Mall*Mart, the Musical! seems to break into two different productions. The first act details the life of one Walt Samson -- a stand-in for Sam Walton, founder of Wal-Mart -- and shows his rise to wealth and prominence, as well as the wreckage he left in his wake. The script is flat and the acting execrable. But after the intermission, something miraculous happens. The script gets lively and clever. The very same performers spring to life, becoming humorous, eccentric, even touching people -- caricatures still, but also real human beings: tired workers, wolfish business execs, a young couple torn apart by the husband's shopaholism. This is telling social commentary but also terrific theater, replete with a slew of great songs by Bruce Barthol. You've heard all the arguments against Wal-Mart, and author Joan Holden makes them all again here, but from her affectionate parody of old-hippie, stoner bands to her weird AA-style shopaholic support group, the tone is stylish and good-humored. Presented by Curious Theatre Company through June 9, Acoma Center, 1080 Acoma Street, 303-623-0524, www.curioustheatre.org. Reviewed May 10.

Ragtime. Leonard Barrett has taken over the role of Coalhouse Walker, previously performed by Jeffrey Nickelson, in Ragtime at Boulder's Dinner Theatre. Nickelson was a powerful Walker with a resonant baritone; Barrett's portrayal is equally good and altogether different. He's a smaller, slighter figure than Nickelson, and on first appearance doesn't dominate the stage or exude authority in the same way. But he's fascinating in his own right. Coalhouse Walker is the enigmatic heart of Ragtime -- a black musician who has just won back the woman he loves and their child when he faces a vicious racist insult. His rage is justifiable, but the murderous rampage it inspires is not. Yet because his story is set in a time when American workers were fighting for a living wage and Jewish immigrants were struggling to survive in their mean tenements, he's on some level a revolutionary hero, and he remains charismatic throughout. You find yourself watching him when the other characters are talking, wondering what's going on behind his eyes. Aided by heart-stirring music, Barrett makes Walker charming and sympathetic, as well as dangerous. A jazz singer, he brings a supple, fluid approach to both his acting and his singing. Ragtime was excellent when it opened, but now it's even better -- and this despite the fact that the company is coping with changes both planned and unplanned. Joanie Brosseau-Beyette, who was a funny, ditzy Evelyn Nesbit, is now starring in Evita at the Country Dinner Playhouse; Tia Cope plays Nesbit with a little less zizz but a touch of appealing gravity. The indefatigable performer-choreographer Alicia Dunfee broke her ankle last week, and the rest of the cast has been taking over her lines and moves as necessary. Yet the show is clean, swift and polished. Over the past two months, most of the cast members have settled deeply into their roles. Shelly Cox-Robie's performance as Mother remains sweet and clear; Reynelda Snell still takes off the top of your head with her singing; Wayne Kennedy makes Tateh's rags-to-riches story as human as ever; and John Scott Clough's Father is even more complex and interesting than it was before. And on the night I attended, the energy and conviction of Lea L. Chapman and the rest of the ensemble brought the packed house to its feet. Presented by Boulder's Dinner Theatre through May 26, 5501 Arapahoe Avenue, Boulder, 303-449-6000, www.theatreinboulder.com.

Red Herring. Set in 1952, when Dwight D. Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson were vying for the presidency, Senator Joe McCarthy was busy with his anti-Communist witch hunts, and America was humming songs from South Pacific, Oklahoma!and The King and I, Red Herring is a piece of wit that exists on several levels. It's a spoof on the era and an homage to film noir, featuring a square-jawed FBI agent called Frank and his tough but quietly smoldering sweetheart, Maggie, a detective. In addition, author Michael Hollinger has a thing or two that he wants to say about marriage, and he also tosses in several references to Moby-Dick. This is an ingenious and funny play, and Firehouse has fielded a fair amount of acting talent to serve it. But the production needs more specificity and finesse; though Trina Magness as Maggie and Ed Cord as Frank infuse their performances with a dry, self-referential wit, the actors are given to a bit too much flailing and yelling. Presented by Firehouse Theater Company through May 26, the John Hand Theater, CFU's Lowry Campus, 7653 First Place, 303-562-3232, www.johnhandtheater.com. Reviewed May 3.

Squall. The genre is familiar. There's a woman alone in a house on an island off the coast of Maine: Diana, a famous talk-show host. The pale face of a younger woman glimmers briefly at the storm-battered window. This is Cordelia, and, as we soon discover, she's barking mad. She won't leave. She won't allow Diana to leave. Slashed car tires come into play; phones are dismantled. Hello, Alfred Hitchcock. Hello, Stephen King. But playwright Elizabeth Hemmerdinger has more in mind than a simple thriller, and it's the psychological elements in her story that are compelling. This is less a play about murder than about two sadly damaged women, yearning, in very different ways, for the love and nurturing they never knew. The evening is riveting largely because of the inspired performances of Martha Harmon Pardee and Karen LaMoureaux, who work beautifully both individually and together. Pardee gives Diana an iron control that makes her eventual breakdown particularly shocking, and LaMoureaux's performance is a wonder: honest, naked, sad and frightening. Presented by Modern Muse Theatre Company through May 27, Arvada Center, 6901 Wadsworth Boulevard, Arvada, 720-898-7200, www.modernmusetheatre.com or www.arvadacenter.org. Reviewed May 10.

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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