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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 June 27, Garner Galleria Theatre in the Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org. Reviewed September 18, 2008.

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, www.denvercenter.org. Reviewed April 15.

Mouse in a Jar. George Orwell once said, "If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever," and that pretty much captures the tone of Mouse in a Jar, an unrelenting chronicle of violence and suffering. Orwell was talking about totalitarianism, and the play, with its Polish immigrant protagonist, Ma, does make a bow in that direction: The faceless abuser, Him, is both a merciless husband and a metaphor for the terror inflicted by the torturers of any of the world's dictators, from Augusto Pinochet to Saddam Hussein — particularly since he's represented on stage only by sharp light and an ugly sound. But for the most part, the focus is on domestic violence and its fractured and not always predictable after-effects. We begin with two girls talking as Ma stirs food in a pan; you can hear the sizzle. Ma appears dazed and mesmerized. We learn that the girls are sisters, and every night their father comes home to rape and torment Ma. They want to persuade her to run away, taking them. Eventually, one of the sisters, Zosia, disappears. The second daughter, Daga, is bound to her mother by bonds of love, pity and contempt, and she enlists a young man, here called only Boy, in an attempt at rescue. We realize that Ma will not and does not want to leave her abuser; Daga's manipulations of both her mother and Boy are cruel — but then, Boy is a manipulator, too. Mouse in a Jar is by a young and talented Polish-American playwright named Martyna Majok; some parts are amazingly effective, and a lot of the language is quite wonderful. But there's also often a sense of a writer reaching too hard for meaning and tragedy. The scenes that speak most eloquently reveal Ma as not a symbol or generalization, but as a very specific woman, twisted by suffering, simultaneously loving her daughters and unable to love them, a woman whose utterances often contain an odd, hardened-in-flame humor. Presented by the LIDA Project through May 29, BINDERY | space, 2180 Stout Street, 720-221-3821, www.lida.org. Reviewed May 6.

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