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Mariela in the Desert. Mariela in the Desert is a beautiful play, a serious piece about art, the way it works in the lives of the human beings who create it, the possibilities of transcendence it offers. The action unfolds slowly and quietly to the occasional sound of guitar strings. Mariela and her husband, Jose, are both artists. Once members of the dazzling, artistically and politically revolutionary circle that revolved around Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, they moved to the desert or northern Mexico — at Jose's insistence — with the idea of finding inspiration and building a creative community. But though one of his works, "The Blue Barn," won acclaim, Jose never achieved the success he dreamed of. And while Mariela raised their children, lively Blanca and Carlos, who suffered from a neurological disorder, she stopped setting brush to canvas almost completely. As the play opens, Jose is dying of advanced diabetes. Blanca, estranged and away at university, has been ignoring her mother's pleas that she come home, so Mariela lures her with a telegram saying Jose is already dead. We learn that Carlos died many years ago; his ghost haunts Mariela's imagination. The desert itself is an important character, alternately a place of truth and inspiration and a thirsty, desiccated wasteland. The play isn't perfect. A couple of the characters aren't fully fleshed out, and the dialogue is sometimes repetitive. But it throbs with quiet feeling, and the complex, thoughtful things it has to say about family, art, vocation, isolation and community will stay with you for a long time. Presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company through May 15, Ricketson Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, Reviewed April 15.

Opus. Michael Hollinger knows exactly what he's writing about with Opus, his play about the fictive Lazara Quartet, and his love of music and intimate understanding of musicianship give this piece radiant life. As the play opens, Grace, a young woman fresh out of the conservatory, is auditioning to be the group violist. She is unaware that Lazara has been commissioned to perform at the White House in the very near future, and also that the group is in a dangerous state of flux. Although all decisions are supposedly reached consensually, first violinist Elliot is a dominant and manipulative figure. The violist for whose job Grace is auditioning is Dorian, Elliot's longtime lover, a brilliant musician whom Elliot has recently fired. Alan is the quizzical peacemaker of the group, and cellist Carl is a solid, good-natured family man who is now facing a health crisis. The dialogue feels right and true, the rhythms are perfect and the acting is strong. The only thing that doesn't work is the splutter of over-dramatic plot points that conclude the play and seem at odds with its core exploration of the creative process. Presented by Curious Theatre Company through April 24, 1080 Acoma Street, 303-623-0524, Reviewed March 11.

Othello. Iago is the most interesting character in this production of Othello. John Hutton makes him an ordinary old soldier, bluff and apparently honest. Watching him gull his victims and offer hypocritical comfort to a desperate Desdemona is a lesson in the power of acting — particularly charged and fascinating because Hutton's acting a man who's acting compassion, and he does it full throttle, without any winks or smirks for the audience. Kathleen McCall's Emilia is very strong, too, rich and evocative. There's something wrong, however, when the murder of Desdemona leaves you dry-eyed but you tear up at Emilia's death. When you're more interested in Emilia and Iago, and even in ancillary characters like Lodovico (Geoffrey Kent), Desdemona's uncle, Gratiano (John Arp), the vivid courtesan Bianca (Allison Pistorius) and the poor mug Roderigo (a delightfully sullen performance by David Ivers) than you are in the grand love-tragedy of Othello and Desdemona. The problem is there's no feeling in Robert Jason Jackson's performance in the title role, just a lot of speechifying. When he looks at Desdemona, you don't believe he loves her, or even that he sees her. Meghan Wolf's fragile, pretty Desdemona is the embodiment of pure Victorian maidenhood, a performance that might work well on film but is too small and muted here. Goodness doesn't have to be bloodless; it can be a compelling moral force. But when it's not much manifest, Iago is bound to have the final word. Presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company through May 1, Space Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, Reviewed April 15.

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