Beirut. In Alan Browne's play, Beirut is the name given to New York's East Village, where, in a futuristic dystopia, HIV-positive people are quarantined (the play doesn't use the terms "AIDS" or "HIV," but the references are clear). Outside of this area, the world has changed. Sex is forbidden on pain of execution, and hanged bodies are displayed in public places. Women are forced to cover themselves with sack-like dresses, and all the simple joys of living are proscribed. There are guards everywhere, and intrusive body searches are the norm. Torch, confined in his East Village apartment, is simply waiting to die. Into his claustrophobic world sneaks Blue, his onetime girlfriend. She wants to have sex with him. A dance of attraction, longing, rage and rejection follows. Beirut was written in the 1980s, at the height of the AIDS crisis, and its primary power comes from the evocation of those times. But perhaps at this post-election moment, the play aptly expresses the grief and fear of the gay community, despite its dated references. Presented by Paper Cat Productions through December 11 at the 1896 Theatre, 3822 Tennyson Street, 720-217-2206. Reviewed November 18.
Boston Marriage. For the entire first act, Boston Marriage is pure enjoyment. It's light and fast, and the language is dizzyingly clever and cleverly self-punctuating. The plot concerns two nineteenth-century women who live together in an arrangement termed a "Boston marriage." One of them, Anna, has snared a rich lover who has given her an emerald necklace; his contributions will help the pair survive financially. Claire has news of her own. She's infatuated with a young woman. Through all this, Anna's fuddled and incompetent maid, Catherine, makes frequent appearances, bringing tea, interrupting the conversation, adding oddly unrelated thoughts of her own. The second act of Boston Marriage isn't nearly as entertaining as the first, primarily because Anna, Claire and Catherine aren't really fleshed-out characters, but agglomerations of words. Things do get a bit more interesting as the action builds toward the O. Henry-style mini-revelation of the ending, though for the most part the plot doesn't bear much scrutiny. The dialogue is lots of fun, however. You should see Boston Marriage for the lift and flow of the language and the vicious charm of the women -- Robin Moseley as the dry-tongued Claire, and Annette Helde in a tour de force performance as the witty, sulky, vivacious and oblivious Anna. Presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company through December 23, the Jones Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 14th and Curtis streets, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org. Reviewed November 11.
Impulse Theater. Basements and comedy go together like beer and nuts or toddlers and sandboxes. The basement of the Wynkoop Brewery where Impulse Theater performs is crowded, loud and energetic. Impulse does no prepared skits, nothing but pure improv -- which means that what you see changes every night, and so does the team of actors. These actors set up and follow certain rules and frameworks; they rely on audience suggestions to get these scenes going or to vary the action. Your level of enjoyment depends a lot on whether or not you like the players. Charm is a factor, and so is the ability to take risks. Fortunately, the performers are clever and fast on their feet, willing to throw themselves into the action but never betraying tension or anxiety, perfectly content to shrug off a piece that isn't coming together. The show is funny when the actors hit a groove, but equally funny when they get stymied. So, in a way, the improvisers -- and the audience -- can't lose. Impulse Theater, oen-ended run, Wynkoop Brewing Co., 18th and Wynkoop streets, 303-297-2111 or www.impulsetheater.com. Reviewed June 3.
Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris. Jacques Brel was a Belgian singer-songwriter whose reputation took flight in the 1950s and '60s. His songs influenced, among others, Leonard Cohen, David Bowie, Sting and Bob Dylan, and they have been sung by such diverse artists as Frank Sinatra and Nina Simone. They're verbally and musically complex, sentimental and cynical, worldly wise and world-weary, celebratory, funny. Has anyone since Gilbert and Sullivan fit words and music together so cleverly? And has the world's seamy underside been so powerfully expressed in music since Brecht-Weill? The evening starts with "Marathon," a fast, infectiously rhythmic number that whirls us through the twentieth century, from the bathtub gin of the '20s to the Depression, from World War II to contemporary space travel. The lyrics evoke several of the evening's primary themes. Brel sings of the dark side of life, of greed, lust, rank smells, human perfidy and the sorrows of aging. But there is tenderness, redemption and giddy pleasure here as well. The musicians are first-rate. The four singers excel individually and harmonize well together. So put on your spats and your high-button shoes: This is everything cabaret should be. Presented by the Theatre Cafe in an open-ended run, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 14th and Curtis streets, 303-893-4100. Reviewed November 25.
The Long Christmas Ride Home. Paula Vogel's The Long Christmas Ride Home begins as a tart-tender look at an overworked topic: the way family dynamics become exacerbated, for good or ill, at Christmas time. The play's defining feature, the thing that should have lifted it from the banal to the revelatory, is the use of Japanese images and devices: Bunraku puppets; Japanese screens; stylized, dance-like movements; characters represented by silhouettes or shadow puppets and inhuman, instrumental sounds; the concept of a floating world in which earthly sensations are to be enjoyed because they are fleeting. A man and a woman are in a car on their way to the woman's parents' house for Christmas dinner. Their children, Rebecca, Claire and Stephen, sit in the back; they are represented by white-faced puppets. The father is dreaming of his mistress. The mother is contemplating a revenge affair. The children punctuate their squabbling with unexpectedly hard blows. Later, the actors playing the children shed their puppet selves, and each has a monologue outside a locked door which has a rejecting lover behind it. These are all pretty simplistic stories. Vogel is going for universality, a significance that goes beyond transient human action and individual psychology. As a work in progress, Ride is evocative, but the play ends up foundering in sentimentality. Presented by Curious Theatre Company through December 18, 1080 Acoma Street, 303-623-0524, www.curioustheatre.org. Reviewed November 11.
Menopause The Musical. Menopause The Musical is as much a phenomenon as a piece of theater. The plot is so fragile that even the cliche "whisper-thin" doesn't describe it. Four women -- no, four types -- meet at a lingerie sale at Bloomingdale's: Power Woman, Soap Star, Earth Mother and Iowa Housewife. They begin by bickering but discover that they have hot flashes, memory lapses and mood swings in common. They then proceed to sing parodies of iconic baby boomer songs. "Chain of Fools" becomes "Change, Change, Change"; the opening line of "Heat Wave" transforms into "I'm having a hot flash"; and, in one of the evening's most successful numbers, the women beg the doctor for Prozac to the tune of the Beach Boys' "Help Me, Rhonda." Most of the lyrics are not particularly clever, though "Good Vibrations" is put to hilarious use. For the most part, the show feels like a series of jingles advertising the possibility of a chipper menopause. The four actress-singers are all talented and give huge, vigorous performances, despite the fact that they are crudely and far too loudly miked. Presented by the New Denver Civic Theatre in an open-ended run, 721 Santa Fe Drive, 303-309-3773, www.denvercivic.com. Reviewed August 12.
Metamorphoses. Mary Zimmerman's play is a sometimes ironic and sometimes respectful take on Ovid's work of the same name. The cast assembles around a granite pool -- a miracle of design and engineering at the Avenue Theater -- that can be anything from a backyard pool to the Greeks' dangerous wine-dark sea, a medium for death, birth, baptism and transformation. Actors act out the myths or narrate them, sometimes addressing the audience, sometimes each other. The gods they portray are pretty much like the rest of us, vain or large-spirited, compassionate or cruel. Zimmerman may deserve all the praise she's earned for Metamorphoses, but the most powerful scenes rely on the words of Ovid and poet Rainer Maria Rilke. Still, Metamorphoses is a seductive combination of lighthearted pleasure and resonant, powerful theme. Presented by the Avenue Theater, through January 2, 417 East 17th Avenue, 303-321-5925, www.avenuetheater.com. Reviewed June 17.
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