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, www.suteatro.org. 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, www.curioustheatre.org. 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, www.denvercenter.org. Reviewed September 18.
Mediamockracy, The Trip to Bountiful
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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, www.arvadacenter.org. Reviewed October 2.
Mediamockracy. Director Mitch Dickman was intrigued by the Democratic National Convention — the saturation coverage, the protests and the Democrats' ties to corporate interests. He and actors Karen Slack, William Hahn and GerRee Hinshaw moved among the convention participants, shooting video and asking questions. These elements, along with film from other sources, are woven into the plot of Mediamockracy, which revolves around two feuding characters: Piper Cummington, a viperous, Fox News-style news anchor, and Richard Guy, who hosts a comedy show in the vein of Stephen Colbert. But is the posturing, prancing, hypochondriacal and monomaniacal Guy really supposed to be Colbert? Colbert's entire persona is a spoof, and how do you mock mockery itself? Still, Slack and Hahn are brilliantly and juicily idiosyncratic in their roles, and their tactics illustrate the deficiencies of the mass media. Those deficiencies are further probed by Hinshaw, during entertaining, sometimes enlightening audience discussions that interrupt the action. Presented by Listen Productions through October 25, Buntport Theater, 717 Lipan Street, 720-290-1104, www.dncmediamockracy.com. Reviewed October 9.
The Trip to Bountiful. Carrie Watts, played by Kathleen M. Brady, is an elderly woman trapped in a Houston apartment with her son, Ludie, and his empty-headed, bullying shrew of a wife, Jessie Mae. Carrie longs to return to Bountiful, her home town on the Gulf, and eventually breaks free, clutching her already packed suitcase, her pension check tucked against her breast. At the bus station, she encounters another young wife, Thelma, who is sweet and empathetic. She responds with tears to Carrie's recitation of a psalm; she listens intently as Carrie tells the story of the one real love of her life, a man she was forbidden by her father to marry. Through the long first act, the production is static and uninvolving; it doesn't help that this intimate show is presented in the round, so that you lose immediacy and detail. But when Randy Moore and John Hutton enter the action as station master and sheriff, respectively, everything changes. These two actors are centered and comfortable in their skins, more than a match for Brady's conviction and talent. As Carrie, having finally arrived at her decrepit old home, talks about redbirds and mockingbirds, the play's quiet music asserts itself. Her Carrie is filled with a deep, quiet joy, radiant with it. Like the giant Antaeus, who needed to touch the ground periodically to maintain his strength, she has smelled the earth of her home, and now she is fortified not only for family strife, but for the ultimate darkness to come. Presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company through October 25, Space Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org. Reviewed October 9. — Juliet Wittman