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Capsule reviews of shows

Defiance. The second play in a projected trilogy (the first is Doubt, which took the Pulitzer Prize and will be staged at the Denver Center in spring), Defiance examines the state of the U.S. Marine Corps in 1971, when the Vietnam War had lost all vestige of legitimacy for most Americans, troop morale was low, drug use and racist incidents high. Big questions are raised here about conscience, obedience and what's worth fighting for, but discussion and argument aren't the same thing as drama. The plot centers around a conflict at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, where Lieutenant Colonel Morgan Littlefield yearns equally for advancement and glory. Learning of racial conflict in his camp, he asks Lee King, a young black captain, for help. King informs him of a housing problem faced by black recruits; Littlefield solves it, and eventually tries to promote King. But King doesn't want the promotion. He doesn't want to be a spokesman for his race. Having been shattered by the murder of Martin Luther King Jr., he wants to be left alone and remain invisible. The climax — and the most vivid scene in the play — comes when a young private reveals to the captain a scandal so egregious that he is forced to abandon his aloofness and take action. But the resolution comes far too fast and easily. Presented by the Arvada Center through November 4, Black Box Theater, 6901 Wadsworth Boulevard, Arvada, 720-898-7200, www.arvadacenter.org. Reviewed October 11.

How I Learned to Drive. "Look at me," Uncle Peck pleads to his young niece, the narrator-protagonist of How I Learned to Drive. "Listen to me." And that's just what she does. Deeply and over a period of years, she ponders her relationship with the uncle who first molested her when she was eleven, a relationship that wound up destroying his life and forever damaging hers. Paula Vogel's Pulitzer Prize-winning script -- which was also presented at Curious Theatre Company's inaugural season ten years ago -- is yet another tale of sexual abuse remembered, but it is told with depth and nuance. The narrator, salaciously nicknamed L'il Bit by her sex-obsessed grandparents, has grown up with very little in the way of teaching or nurturance. The one adult who's unfailingly present and attentive is her uncle. This is a love story -- and a deeply unsettling one. Its genius lies in the way it explodes all our tidy little generalizations and seduces us into empathizing with the victimizer as well as the victim. The story itself is fairly straightforward, but Vogel's telling of it is not. She moves backward and forward in time, punctuates the scenes with phrases from a driving manual, uses deliberate stereotypes, periodically allows the action to veer from deadly serious to almost farcical. Beautifully acted by C. Kelly Leo and Marcus Waterman, this is, for the most part, a first-rate production and a good way to mark the close of Curious's first decade. Presented by Curious Theatre Company through October 20, 1080 Acoma Street, 303-623-0524, www.curioustheatre.org. Reviewed September 13.

John & Jen. John and Jen are not lovers, as the title of this intimate musical might lead you to believe, but siblings, children of a violently abusive father. Jen does everything she can to protect her little brother. But when she leaves for college, becoming a free-spirited, pot-smoking hippie and traveling to Canada with a young man who's avoiding the draft, John is left feeling bitter and betrayed. He has always half-identified with their father, even while fearing him, and he now decides to join the Navy, to be a man, to go to war. He dies in Vietnam. By the second act, Jen's lover has deserted her. She's back in the United States and raising their son — whom she's named John. Filled with guilt over the death of her brother, she holds this John stiflingly close. But he turns out to be a spirited young man with ideas of his own, and clashes are inevitable. Both Gina Schuh-Turner and Mark Giles turn in wonderfully committed performances and, overall, this is a fine, absorbing evening of theater that evokes themes none of us can escape, themes having to do with family and obligation to others, the need to protect our children and the need to let them fly — in short, the blessed and cursed complexity of love. Presented by Nonesuch Theater through October, 216 Pine Street, Fort Collins, 1-970-224-0444, www.nonesuchtheater.com. Reviewed September 6.

Mid-Life! The Crisis Musical. Scott Beyette, Alicia Dunfee, Brian Norber, Bren. Eyestone Burron, A.K. Klimpke and Barb Reeves are seasoned, energetic and talented performers, stalwarts of the troupe that's kept Boulder's Dinner Theatre hopping all these years, and they're having the time of their mid-life with Jim and Bob Waltons' script. Perhaps the most memorable number is "Biological Clock," in which Dunfee's character, frantically wanting to have a baby, attempts to coax, bully and force her date into giving up his sperm. There's also a terrific skit in which a middle-aged couple laments their far-from-empty nest, now occupied by a grown-up slacker son. Like all the best humor, it's true as well as amusing, and there's a sweetness at its core. A few of the other sketches flop, and some of the humor is oddly retro, particularly when a trio of men try to reclaim their youthful athleticism in a baseball practice only to be interrupted by simultaneous phone calls from their wives; their humble "Yes, dears" would have drawn chuckles from the old guys in the Borscht Belt. Still, Mid-Life! is far more hip than most dinner-theater fare. Presented by Boulder's Dinner Theatre through October 28, 5501 Arapahoe Avenue, Boulder, 303-449-6000, www.theatreinboulder.com. Reviewed September 20.

My Name Is Rachel Corrie. Rachel Corrie has been a lightning rod for controversy ever since her death in Gaza in 2003, when the 23-year-old was run over by an Israeli soldier as she attempted to prevent the bulldozing of a Palestinian home. But Corrie was more than just a symbol; she was a genuinely unique young spirit. This play was put together by English actor Alan Rickman and journalist Katharine Viner from Corrie's journals and e-mails; it's clear that the world lost a lot when it lost this strong, individual voice. Much of the power of this production stems from the fact that you can't separate what you're seeing on stage from what you know —- that this marvelous young woman, who spoke of death and hope in the same breathless moment, would die a cruel, violent death. "Love you. Really miss you," she wrote in a letter to her mother. "I have bad nightmares about tanks and bulldozers outside our house and you and me inside." With her graceful hands and gentle dignity, Julie Rada perfectly embodies the character of Rachel. Director Brian Freeland gives us just enough light to provide a clear view of Rada's face, and she pitches her voice just loud enough to be heard comfortably, but you still have to lean in a little to catch everything. Along with the simplicity of the set, this restraint adds to the power of the evening. Presented by Countdown to Zero through November 17, Bindery/space, 770 22nd Street, 720-938-0466, www.countdowntozero.org. Reviewed October 4.

Third. The play tells the story of Laurie Jameson, a feminist scholar and the first woman ever to achieve tenure at a prestigious liberal arts college. After a lecture on King Lear, in which she explains that Goneril and Regan are the play's true heroes, Lear a representative of the repressive patriarchal system and Cordelia a sentimental simpleton, she's asked a question by a student who seems to represent everything she's spent her life fighting: a cheerful, white male athlete named Woodson Bull III (or Third, as he likes to be called), whom she immediately categorizes as a young George W. Bush. When this kid eventually produces a brilliant paper, she assumes it's plagiarized and hauls him before an academic honors committee. But the paper is Third's own; he is vindicated and Laurie shamed. Unfortunately, the plot is utterly unconvincing. It strains credulity that a twenty-year-old has the stuff to come up with a publication-worthy theory on a play that's been dissected by some of the best minds in the world. Besides, even though Laurie's own reading of Lear is dumb, Third's counter-interpretation is even dumber. Leftists can be as self-righteous and bullying as rightists, but Laurie goes beyond that into one-dimensional caricature — a woman who is as angered by a sexist word as by the invasion of IraqThird raises crucial issues -- not only the dark side of feminism, but mother-daughter conflict, the meaning of life in the face of death — but never explores them in any depth. Presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company through October 20, Space Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org. Reviewed October 4.

You Can't Take It With You. Penelope Sycamore writes plays because someone once left a typewriter on the doorstep. Her husband, Paul, makes fireworks in the basement, assisted by Mr. DePinna, a tradesman who, having come to the house several years earlier, never left. Daughter Essie is a candy-maker and aspiring ballerina, married to Ed, who plays the xylophone. Grandpa Martin Vanderhof stopped working decades ago because work left him unfulfilled, and he now collects snakes. The only conventional member of the family is daughter Alice, who has fallen in love with Tony, the son of the wealthy, upper-crust Kirbys. What we have here is your basic clash-of-values, guess-who's-coming-to-dinner conflict. There are some funny moments in this Pulitzer-winning play, but overall the Sycamores simply aren't as heartwarming as they seem to think they are. You Can't Take It With You was written at the height of the Depression, and it represents the kind of fizzy escapist fantasy that lots of people craved at the time — though it's a rich man's fantasy, twit humor at its apex. Among the reasons to see this mildly funny but entirely forgettable production are Randy Moore's shrewd, funny, calculating Grandpa and Kathleen M. Brady, who brings a gorgeous blooming vitality to the role of the Grand Duchess Olga. Presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company through October 20, the Stage Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org. Reviewed October 11.

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