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Capsule reviews of current shows

Doubt. John Patrick Shanley's Doubt is a short, brilliantly constructed, engrossing play that, on the surface, seems straightforward. But there's a lot going on beneath that surface. The action begins with a voice speaking in the dark. When the lights come up, we see that this voice belongs to Father Flynn, who's standing in the pulpit reciting a parable on the theme of certainty and doubt. Then we're in the study of Sister Aloysius, head of a Catholic school in the Bronx. Sister Aloysius is anything but one-dimensional. A powerful and entirely original character, she may believe in doing good in the world, but it's an abstract, lofty, pure and absolute kind of good, the kind that has nothing to do with comforting a lonely child or encouraging an insecure young colleague. She becomes convinced on only the slightest evidence that Father Flynn is a pederast, and  you watch in horror as she pursues the man like an avenging fury through scene after scene. Except that periodically, you decide there's truth to her accusations. Isn't Father Flynn just a little too glib and charming? Doesn't he seem a touch narcissistic? Shanley doesn't tip his hand on this. He defies the desire for certainty that all of us feel, reminding us that not only is doubt inescapable, it's also a rich state of mind, the source of endless permutations of thought and imagination, a deep soil from which vibrant new shapes can appear. Jeanne Paulsen is magnificent as Aloysius, and Sam Gregory is fine as Father Flynn. There's also an extraordinary performance by Kim Staunton as the mother of the boy Sister Aloysius believes is being abused. Presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company through May 17, Ricketson Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org. Reviewed April 17.

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The Last Five Years. This intimate two-person musical involves the breakup of a marriage. When Jamie and Cathy met in New York, he was an aspiring writer and she an actress. Success came for him fast, while she continued to inhabit the dreary, ego-pummeling world of auditions and summer stock — with predictable results for their relationship. The songs — solos, with one exception — reveal a triumphant Jamie noticing his effect on other women and fighting the desire to utilize it, with a sulky Cathy refusing to attend his publishing party. He resents her neediness and insecurity, she his arrogance and self-involvement. Playwright Jason Robert Brown has hit on an interesting device to make this relatively commonplace story more poignant and more complex: While Jamie relates events as they happened, Cathy reveals them backwards. At the very beginning, she weeps over Jamie's goodbye letter, and minutes later, he erupts onto the scene singing rapturously about the "shiksa goddess" he's just met. Chris Crouch and Shannan Steele are both terrific performers, brimming with energy, poised and charismatic, possessed of lovely, expressive voices. Crouch makes Jamie real and funny and quirky, and Steele is often touching as Cathy — though I wish both would avoid that awful, dissolving-into-self-pitying-tears style that's come to dominate singing in musicals these days. Still, this is an emotionally exuberant production, staged in a smooth, comfortable style, and enjoyable even though it's far from thought-provoking. Presented by Denver Center Attractions through June 29 at the Galleria Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org. Reviewed February 14.

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