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Black Odyssey. Based on Homer's epic, Black Odyssey tells the story of a soldier, Ulysses Lincoln, coming back from a tour of duty in Afghanistan. Like his namesake, he is forced to wander for many years before he can return home, encountering supernatural beings and many strange adventures along the way. But playwright Marcus Gardley has transformed the narrative, using song, myth and metaphor to tell the story of the black experience in the United States, and Ulysses Lincoln's voyage is inward rather than physical. To find his way home, he must internalize and understand his culture and history with all its suffering and joy, and in the process discover who he is. The gods who influence his destiny are as petty, vengeful and unpredictable as the gods of Greek myth, and they also represent his ancestors. Humans and gods intermingle freely, the line between reality and the otherworldly fades, and time collapses in on itself. Throughout the evening, there are references to all kinds of seminal events and figures in African-American history: Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Alice Walker's The Color Purple, the Scottsboro boys and the four little girls murdered in a Birmingham, Alabama, church. The war Ulysses has endured doesn't play much of a role; it's just a peg on which to hang the story, though eventually we do learn about the war memory that haunts him and prevents his return — and it's a disappointingly standard piece of dramaturgy. In general, the wonderful imagination and idiosyncrasy that light up so much of Black Odyssey are missing from the more realistic scenes. But when the play works — which is most of the time — it's a feast, a vivid illustration of the magical power of storytelling and memory. The tech — deceptively simple set; clever, appealing costumes; supple lighting; terrific sound — is exquisite, and the cast is filled with superb actors, many of whom sing and move as expressively as they act. Presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company through February 16, Space Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 203-893-4100, denvercenter.org. Reviewed January 30.

The Legend of Georgia McBride. Matthew Lopez's The Legend of Georgia McBride

makes for a bright, fast, entertaining evening, but there isn't a lot of there there. Casey, an easygoing dreamer, has a wife he adores, Jo, and scrapes out the barest of livings as an Elvis impersonator at a grimy local bar. But Jo reveals she's pregnant, the bar's finances keep sinking and in a desperate, last-ditch move, the owner hires a couple of drag queens. Which means Elvis impersonating Casey is out unless he can pull off a drag act himself. All this could make for a motherlode of richly humanistic revelation, but the play is underwritten and the characters have little contour or dimension. And the plot isn't complex or funny enough to work as farce — although the possibilities for plot complication are rife. How will Jo react when she finds out how her husband has been making his money? How will Christian brother Beau, who's running for this conservative town's school board, deal with the inevitable fallout? Turns out Jo's a pushover and the fallout is entirely evitable. The drag numbers save the show, though. The first act springs to vivid life as Miss Tracy Mills teaches Casey, who's working on Edith Piaf's "Padam Padam," that the key to lip synching is repetition of the words "watermelon motherfucker." There's a terrific number that starts out with "(Not) Getting Married Today" from Steven Sondheim's

Company

and then rips through a medley containing bits of everything from Bernstein's Candideto Styne, Sondheim and Laurents's Gypsy to Rodgers and Hammerstein's South Pacific. The song choices in general are inspired and the drag elements keep getting glitzier, flashier and louder, obscuring the play's deficiencies — until you leave the theater and start thinking about the lost opportunities. Presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company through February 23, Ricketson Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, denvercenter.org. Reviewed January 23.

Orphans. The action of Orphans

opens on a bleak apartment with worn furniture and stains on the walls. This is the home of a pair of brothers so undeveloped and embryonic that — though both are now fully adult — they still define themselves as orphans: Their father deserted the family when they were little; their mother died. Phillip has mental problems. He twitches, walks with a spidery shamble, endlessly twists his fingers. Older brother Treat has taken on a paternal role that he's utterly incapable of fulfilling. He's alternately violent and clumsily nurturing, providing tuna sandwiches, cuffing and infantilizing Phillip, convincing him that he must never go outside because of an intense allergic reaction he once had as a child. Treat supports this miserable life through theft and violence. One night, Treat brings home a well-dressed drunken businessman named Harold, whom he's selected as an easy mark. He plans to kidnap Harold and demand a ransom. But Harold isn't who he seems to be, and pretty soon he's turned the tables. When he takes control of the household, you're never quite sure whether his intentions are kindly or sinister: He tries to civilize Treat and to broaden Phillip's limited horizons, but it's all in the service of scams that are never fully explained and involve a briefcase full of stocks and bonds. Orphans remain a potent symbol throughout as Harold reveals that he's an orphan, too, and reminisces about the Dead End Kids of the 1930s movies. The play veers skillfully and deliberately between grimy realism and the fluidly fantastical. It has to do with an ever-shifting power balance between the three protagonists as well as the human need for nurturance and recognition. Despite the gritty, menacing tone, Orphans
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