Capsule reviews of current shows

Braided Sorrow. No one knows exactly how many young women have been murdered in the Mexican border town of Juárez over the last decade, perhaps three or four hundred. The murder rate shot up after the North American Free Trade Agreement was signed in 1994, when several U.S. companies set up assembly plants in Juarez in search of cheap labor and Mexicans began pouring in from the country's impoverished interior. The Juárez murders caught the attention of Marisela Treviño Orta, who made them the subject of her first play. It's a gutsy start. How do you re-create this level of terror and violence on a stage without exploitation, falseness or melodrama? Orta chose to approach her subject head-on, with sincerity and compassion. Her story concerns a teenage girl, Alma, come to join her brother and sister-in-law, Yadria, and help support the family. Before Alma can even begin work, Yadria is fired for being pregnant. Now Alma must face the frightening journey to and from the maquiladora and the increasingly aggressive overtures of her supervisor on her own. Orta intertwines Alma's story with the legend of La Llorona, a mystical weeping woman who drowned her own children in a fit of jealous rage, and now haunts lakes and rivers lamenting their deaths. The script isn't perfect, but for this premiere, director Tony Garcia has elicited profoundly moving performances from his actors, beginning with Gemma Aguayo, whose ethereal beauty reminds us that her character's name — Alma — means "soul." Presented by El Centro Su Teatro through October 18, 4725 High Street, 303-296-0219, Reviewed October 2.

Curse of the Starving Class. The moment you walk into the theater, you know you're in Sam Shepard country — a place suffused with memories of the mythic Old West, but where the breadth and purity of that myth serve only to underline the disappointing realities of contemporary life. You see a gorgeous blue sky arching over the furnishings of a dingy family home: a table with chairs, a kitchen counter, an ancient refrigerator that will get slammed open and closed many times during the course of the evening, its perpetual emptiness symbolizing the spiritual vacuum at the heart of this family's life. And what a family it is. There's drunken, violent Weston; his two children, manchild Wesley and adolescent daughter Emma; and their wife and mother, Ella, who appears not to care a whit about any of them. As always with Shepard, there's a continuing, almost metaphysical subtext expressed in strong images that are not only verbal, but made concrete and visual: the refrigerator, the figure of a man — Weston — asleep on a table piled with dirty clothes while his son silently watches; a live lamb in a pen; Wesley pissing on a chart his sister has constructed for her class that shows how to cut up a frying chicken. Director Chip Walton and his cast have made the characters even more cloddish than they appear in the script, and sometimes the interpretation edges into caricature. The script is not Shepard at his best, but even lesser Shepard offers dark, ironic humor and startling dramatic moments. Presented by Curious Theatre Company through October 18, 1080 Acoma Street, 303-623-0524, Reviewed September 11.

Girls Only. The trouble with Girls Only, a two-woman evening of conversation, skits, singing, improvisation and audience participation, is that it's so relentlessly nice. Creator-performers Barbara Gehring and Linda Klein have worked together for many years; at some point, they read their early diaries to each other and were transfixed by the similarities and differences they found in them, as well as the insights they gained into their own psyches and the travails of puberty. This theater piece was developed from that material — but not all of that material. "I purposely don't read every diary entry in the show, because it turns out I was kind of mean, and I don't want to be mean," Klein told an interviewer. But mean is funny, and when you cut it out entirely, what do you have to joke about? Girly pink bedrooms, purses, bras, skinny models in glossy magazines. Every time they tell a story with the tiniest bite to it, Gehring and Klein — both talented and appealing stage performers — move instantly to reassure us that they don't mean it. At one point Klein relates an interesting tale about how she came to possess the badly taxidermied body of an electrocuted squirrel as a child; the minute she's completed this funny, freaky moment in an otherwise highly predictable evening, she gives a pouty, don't-get-me-wrong grin and sweetly caresses the squirrel's head. There's enough good material here for a tight, funny, one-hour-long show, but this one stretches on and on, as if Klein and Gehring had been determined to throw every single joke and piece of shtick that occurred to them in the script. Presented by Denver Center Attractions through December 21, Garner Galleria Theatre in the Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, Reviewed September 18.

Les Misérables. This huge, sprawling musical is based on Victor Hugo's novel, Les Misérables, and the plot centers on the merciless pursuit of a freed prisoner, Jean Valjean, by a bitter police detective, Javert. In the course of the chase, which continues over several decades, we encounter everything from revolutionaries at the ramparts to an orphaned golden-haired tot, daughter of a reluctant and desperately poor prostitute, who will grow into a beautiful, golden-haired woman and marry the handsome and principled young hero, a revolutionary named Marius, all under the loving eye of the virtuous though still endangered Valjean. With this much action, there's not a lot of room for character exploration or complexity. Instead, the actors sing a great deal — there are only three spoken words in the entire musical — and almost always at the highest pitch of passion. But since the music is beautiful and the cast boasts several magnificent voices, that's pretty much all you need for a thrilling evening. Director Rod A. Lansberry has poured energy and resources into his revival, assembling a fine eight-piece orchestra under conductor Martha Yordy, finding a way of creating the many required venues without the famed turntable set (Brian Mallgrave's design is workable and evocative), and bringing together a talented group of actors. Presented by the Arvada Center through October 19, 6901 Wadsworth Boulevard, 720-898-7200, Reviewed October 2.

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