Dearly Departed. Most of the characters in David Bottrell and Jessie Jones's off-Broadway hit behave as if they belong in a sketch on The Carol Burnett Show, and some of their collective yokeling is reminiscent of Hee Haw cornpone. And heaven knows that the two-hour exercise in escapism -- welcome in this age of television hospital dramas and crime shows -- shamelessly borrows from the same topical larder (death, dysfunction and small-town taboos) that supplies grist for the TV newsmagazine shows. But even though the Avenue Theater's production occasionally drifts into the realm of boob-tube turgidity, the stalwart performers manage to earn bushels of laughter for their down-home, over-the-top antics. As for addressing more pressing social problems, it might be best to heed one character's pithy observation: "If you think sometimes, 'There's just no answer,' you may be right." Through March 31 at the Avenue Theater. Reviewed August 12.

The Laramie Project. Bringing to mind the Federal Theater Project's "living newspaper" dramas of the 1930s and the "theater of testimony" exemplified by Emily Mann's Execution of Justice, the Tectonic Theater Company's fact-based drama recounts the events surrounding Matthew Shepard's murder as told by those who actually witnessed and experienced them. Despite the fact that the company strives to be faithful to the material at hand, they sometimes undermine their efforts by slavishly serving as both reporters and interpreters of fact. Most of the time, the near-three-hour performance seems like an extended wake -- albeit an unrelentingly compelling one -- in which the performer/ characters are bound to speak about their feelings, and the audience, however willing, must listen. But no matter how confidently the play leans on the pillars of fact, it has yet to embrace broader truths as effectively as it articulates individual dilemmas. Through April 1 at the Ricketson Theatre. Reviewed March 2.

Picasso at the Lapin Agile. Smaller in scope and more conversational in tone than last season's effort by the Denver Center Theatre Company, the Avenue Theatre's production of Steve Martin's polemic about art and science proves nearly as amusing and, at times, more affecting. More than anything else, though, director John Ashton's environmental approach enlivens and personalizes this fictional conversation between Pablo Picasso and Albert Einstein by eliminating most of the barriers that typically separate artist from audience. The cabaret-style version is being presented in a vacant bar/restaurant space (the former Mike Berardi's). And even though Martin's occasional gibes at dramatic contrivance don't always come through with crystal clarity, most of the actors imbue their portrayals with a greater warmth and humanity than might be found in a traditionally staged production. Through April 2 at the Avenue Theater. Reviewed November 18.

Shakespeares R&J. Given the many conflicts between authority figures and rebellious upstarts in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, a version set in a Catholic boarding school doesn't seem like much of a stretch. Nor does the idea of having a quartet of actors play all of the parts in Joe Calarco's adaptation, which was a hot ticket when it played off-Broadway a couple of seasons back. Although the Theatre Group's production occasionally suffers from the actors' tendency to blare through dialogue that requires a more thoughtful, measured treatment, each performer forges a unique connection to at least one character. On the strength of Nicholas Sugar's adroit direction, the four-man effort proves both provocative and affecting and manages to suggest each schoolboy's inner rages without severely compromising Shakespeare's original. Through March 31 at Theatre on Broadway. Reviewed February 10.

Wings. Encouraged to adapt his radio experiment for the stage, Arthur Kopit subsequently added a number of visual effects that transformed this study about a stroke victim into a symphonic explosion of light, sound and poetry -- and a Tony award-winning Broadway play. Propelled by Terry Dodd's masterful direction and Martha Greenberg's superb portrayal of the central role of Mrs. Stilson, the Aurora Fox Theatre Company's production proves a mesmerizing account of one woman's struggle to find her place in a strange yet achingly familiar world. Near play's end, Greenberg, backed up by a single line of performers in vintage aviator dress, describes her journey as if she were magically freed to devote half her being to earthly cares and the other to heaven's delights. Like the rest of Dodd and company's marvelous paean to human communication, it's a moment that allows Kopit's play, rare in this age of overwrought confessionals and heavy-handed docudramas, to soar. Through March 25 at the Aurora Fox Theatre. Reviewed March 2.


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