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Fiction. In the first scene of Fiction, two people argue and flirt in a Paris cafe. They seem entirely familiar with each other; their argument, though heightened and intensely clever, still has the comfortable, teasing, accustomed rhythms you expect of a conversation between lovers. But in the second scene we learn that this was actually the first meeting of now long-married writers Michael and Linda Waterman, or rather — it takes a little longer to figure this out — the first meeting as Michael recorded it. Now Michael is the kind of blockbuster novelist his younger self scorned, while Linda has never been able to repeat the success of her first novel, famed not only for its writing, but for its tragic autobiographical elements. Playwright Steven Dietz is a clever soul. His plotting is cunning, and the layers of complexity he builds around the basic concepts of truth and fiction are even more so. As written, Michael and Linda are fascinating, but you wouldn't really want to know them; they'd be the kind of dinner-party guests whose self-conscious wit silenced everyone else. But director Richard H. Pegg has cast Rhonda Brown and Thomas Borrillo, two actors of such warmth and appeal that you can't help empathizing with them. The result is a fascinating evening — and that's no fiction. Presented by Miners Alley Playhouse through April 24. 1224 Washington Avenue, Golden, 303-935-3044, Reviewed March 17.

Ruined. One of the most troubled and lawless places in the world right now is the Democratic Republic of the Congo — and if everyone's life there is hell, Congolese women, raped and mutilated by the thousands, are condemned to the lowest circle. In attempting a play about the plight of these women — several of whom she interviewed in refugee camps — Lynn Nottage faced a couple of obvious problems: how to keep the work from devolving into a polemic, and how to communicate the sheer horror of the situation without losing her entire audience. Still, she's fully succeeded. Ruined, a Pulitzer Prize winner, is neither self-righteous nor demoralizing. It is a richly textured, compassionate, tough-minded evening of theater, filled with characters as life-affirming as they are profoundly and shamefully victimized. The action takes place in a bar and whorehouse run by Mama Nadi, a woman hardened in flame who'll do whatever she must in order to survive. Her latest recruits are Sophie, an intelligent young woman with a good singing voice and a head for numbers, who has been raped with a bayonet and ruined for sex, and Salima, whose story is equally harrowing: Kidnapped by soldiers, held as a slave and gang-raped at will, she finally returned home, only to be rejected by her husband. These two join Josephine, daughter of a tribal chief who proved unable to protect her, who hopes her regular customer, the Lebanese merchant Harari, will provide a safe harbor. The patrons are sometimes pathetic, sometimes drunkenly out of control, always frightening. From outside comes the steady crackle of gunfire. And still there are moments of humor and even joy. Most important, Nottage provides redemption at the play's end — a not entirely convincing redemption, given the grimness of the situation, but, because of that same grimness, as artistically satisfying as it is deeply necessary. Presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company through April 30, Ricketson Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, Reviewed April 7.

The 30th of Baydak. This is a small, sweet, gentle play about a large, ragged and ugly topic: dictatorship. And naturally, since it's a Buntport Theater Company production, the troupe has tackled a particular kind of dictatorship. When Niyazov became president for life in Turkmenistan after the fall of the Soviet Union, he turned out to be as dotty as he was terrifying. He filled the country with huge, ludicrous statues of himself, banned gold teeth and suggested his subjects chew on bones to strengthen their natural choppers, changed the names of planets to honor himself and his mother, and also remade the calendar. January became Turkmenbashi (Niyazov's honorary title); Baydak was February — which can only have a 30th in the kind of topsy-turvy universe depicted here. The action stays away from anything large or lurid. What we see is an office drone named Yousef, quietly excising the now-forbidden former month names from official documents. A bustling woman brings him an armload of papers and spouts cheery clichés. A co-worker arrives late. All this repeats. And then one morning a young woman named Meret arrives to occupy the cubicle next to his, and pretty soon they've fallen in love. How do you survive in a place where your life and work are meaningless, and history can be changed or obliterated at the will of the powerful? You keep your head down, allow yourself small but meaningful acts of defiance, try to maintain a sense of the absurd, look to art or love to free your soul. And if you're imaginative, you escape into magic. Yousef — who spends his evenings conversing with an affable camel and decides to create a portrait of Meret out of torn-out months — tries all of these. The small, telling gesture with which the play concludes is a little disappointing, but the primary significance lies in image and metaphor, and there are quietly radiant performances from Erin Rollman as Meret and Erik Edborg as Yousef. Presented by Buntport Theater Company through April 23, 717 Lipan Street, 720-946-1388, Reviewed April 14.

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