Cookin' at the Cookery. Singer Alberta Hunter had an extraordinary life. She left her Memphis home at the age of twelve for Chicago, where she got her start at a rough club called Dago Frank's. Eventually, she moved to New York City, becoming part of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. During the '30s, like many black artists, she found refuge in Europe from the racism of her native country, and she won stardom and acclaim there. Astonishingly, at the age of 59, she quit music to take a nursing course. She worked at a hospital in New York City for twenty years before returning to the stage at the age of 81. All these details are faithfully recorded in Cookin' at the Cookery, but the script seems oddly generic. You never feel that you actually understand anything about this woman that you couldn't have learned from reading a brief bio. Two actresses carry the show. Ernestine Jackson plays Alberta Hunter; Janice Lorraine moves from role to role: she's an impresario, the "ugliest woman God ever put breath in," Louis Armstrong, the show's narrator and the young Hunter herself. Despite some weaknesses in the script, the music and singing might have ultimately rescued the evening if it weren't for the ugly, sound-distorting mikes shadowing the women's faces. In a venue the size of the Denver Civic, the human voice should certainly be able to prevail -- particularly when it's the magnificent voice of Ernestine Jackson singing the music of Alberta Hunter. Presented by Denver Civic Theatre through March 7, 721 Santa Fe Drive, 303-309-3773, www.denvercivic.com. Reviewed February 19.
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Flaming Guns of the Purple Sage. Flaming Guns is a manic, farcical take on the myth of the West mixed with a large dollop of gothic horror. It's also a genuinely clever, funny and outrageous script. Bits and pieces of things you've seen before float to the surface: scenes from Roseanne, echoes of old Westerns, rodeo lore, hints of Sweeney Todd -- but nothing ever goes where you think it will, and as a result, your fascinated attention never leaves the stage. OpenStage Theatre is currently giving Flaming Guns a spirited, hilarious, balls-out (pun intended) production. The action takes place in the kitchen of Big Eight, a onetime rodeo star whose property is about to be foreclosed on. She makes her living healing young cowboys of their hurts and injuries, exacting sexual services and a silver belt buckle from each of them in return. The current beneficiary of her attentions is Rob Bob, an earnest, befuddled young charmer with a touching and unshakeable belief in the code of the West. He's got it all figured out: He's the white hat; any enemy he encounters is a black hat; and the girl he falls in love with (at first sight, naturally) has to be the local schoolmarm, even if she turns out to be in actuality a spike-haired, multi-pierced little spitfire dubbed Shedevil. All in all, a bloody good time. Presented by OpenState Theatre and Company through March 20, Lincoln Center Mini-Theatre, 417 West Magnolia Street, Fort Collins, 970-221-6730, www.openstagetheatre.org. Reviewed February 26.
Meshuggah Nuns. Meshuggah Nuns is the kind of show that seems to have no real reason for being. It's inoffensive and even amusing in spots, but it also feels like something created for the sole purpose of filling up time on stage -- and in a world full of musicals with witty scripts and beautiful or sophisticated songs, it's unclear why any company would waste time on it. There are songs, puns and a lot of Jewish-Catholic jokes, many of them pretty standard. The Country Dinner Theatre production is tight and clean, and the cast so talented that they almost manage to pull the evening off. Presented by the Country Dinner Playhouse through March 14, 6875 South Clinton Street, Greenwood Village, 303-799-1410, www.countrydinnerplayhouse.com. Reviewed January 29.
No Man's Land. No Man's Land starts with two men in a room, both apparently poets. The host is Hirst. He seems to have met his guest, Spooner, at the local pub. The men's stories shift and change, flowing like water into whatever verbal vessel Harold Pinter has prepared. The playwright makes use of all kinds of tropes. Sometimes his words seem lifted from a summer romance or a detective novel. Sometimes he echoes Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco or even earlier Pinter. There are sections that are extraordinarily funny. Ultimately, we're left with a handful of questions: What does Spooner want from Hirst and Hirst from Spooner? Why does Hirst fall to the floor after telling Spooner of a dream in which someone was drowning? Despite all this, No Man's Land is anything but cloudy. There's something dizzying and exhilarating about its rarefied atmosphere, its off-kilter rhythms, and Ed Baierlein fascinates in the role of Spooner. Presented by the Germinal Stage through March 7, Germinal Stage Denver, 2450 West 44th Avenue, 303-455-7108. Reviewed February 19.
Visiting Mr. Green. In and off itself, Jeff Baron's play is a slight one, but meticulous production values and Ben Hammer's rich and grounded interpretation of the title character make it soar. A young business executive is ordered by a judge to pay weekly visits to the old man he almost hit with his car. He's annoyed at the obligation, and the befuddled, angry old man doesn't want him around anyway. But the judge is adamant. We all have some sense of what will happen next. These unlikely people will come to know each other, acquire mutual respect and understanding and form some kind of bond. But the devil -- and God -- is in the details. Though the dialogue feels flat at first, things soon become genuinely interesting, even mildly surprising. We're treated to insight, humor derived from real, gritty human foibles and a deeply touching ending. Presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company through March 27, The Jones Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 14th and Curtis streets, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org. Reviewed February 5.