Bug. At the beginning, Bug seems hyper-realistic. We're shown a drink- and drug-addled woman, Agnes, living in a motel room, which we learn is on the outskirts of Oklahoma City. We have been here before. It is -- among other things -- Sam Shepard country. A quiet young man, Peter, invades Agnes's life. When her drunken, ex-con ex-husband finally makes his entrance, Peter neither flinches away nor defends Agnes from his violence, but afterwards, he takes care of her, and the two of them end up in bed together. After what we're led to believe is mutually welcome and spiritually replenishing sex, he wakes, flailing in the darkness. There's a bug in the bed, he insists. And it's got to be killed. The action speeds up and, before our eyes, the couple begins spiraling into madness. Eventually, Agnes's cheap motel room is filled with fly swatters, a bug zapper, flypaper, chemicals and sprayers and drums of gasoline. Although there's a glimmer of political reality to Bug -- Peter claims to be an Iraq vet and the victim of government experimentation -- the play is a pretty straightforward thriller, intelligent, sometimes funny and replete with fear and blood. Chris Reid gives an extraordinary performance as Peter -- nuanced, intense, understated and dangerous. Presented by Curious Theatre Company through December 17, 1080 Acoma Street, 303-623-0524, www.curioustheatre.org. Reviewed November 10.
The Fourth Wall. Playwright A.R. Gurney is a courteous, upper-crust kind of guy, so when he found himself enraged by national politics, he didn't respond with agitprop or searing realism. Instead he imagined a comfortably middle-class housewife, Peggy, who -- by way of protest -- rearranges all the furniture in her living room so that it faces an imaginary theatrical fourth wall. Pretty soon, anyone entering Peggy's living room begins behaving like a character on a stage, and the resultant mix of realism and the actors' frantic bouts of self-aware staginess creates a cascade of evocative moments and clever jokes. There's also a piano that plays Cole Porter all by itself. As interior designer Julia preens and poses, Peggy's husband attempts to understand her, and theater professor Floyd urges Peggy to explore new forms of theater, Peggy herself stays true to her vision. She believes that beyond her sheltered world there are people of every race and nationality who can be persuaded to march on Washington and halt the madness of George W. Bush's foreign policy. This production focuses more on surface comedy than on Peggy's rage and sadness, however, which makes it amusing but ultimately inconsequential. Presented by the Avenue Theater through May 22, 417 East 17th Avenue, 303-321-5925, www.avenuetheater.com. Reviewed September 1.
Horror: The Transformation. This play is based on Charles Brockden Brown's Wieland, a novel published in 1798, which itself was inspired by the true story of a farmer who killed his wife and children. It's not done as a period piece, though the clothes and setting aren't strictly modern, either, and a lot of the dialogue retains an eighteenth-century focus and rhythm. The acting is somewhat naturalistic, but there are also many stylized elements. The actors all wear gloves; their eyes are heavily shadowed. Two children are represented by ingeniously constructed puppets. There are long periods during which we, the audience, sit in absolute darkness, and often the theater is filled with odd and insinuating sounds. Music. Panting. A low, breastbone-vibrating rumble. Footsteps. Instrumental shrieks. Many of the technical tricks are brilliant, and the puppet-children are eerily effective throughout. Although neither the plot of Brown's novel nor that of the play entirely holds together, the production succeeds, both as an extended rumination on the first Gothic novel ever published in America, and in creating a real sense of fear and unease in a contemporary audience. Presented by Buntport Theater in rotation with Realism: The Mythical Brontosaurus through December 10, 717 Lipan Street, 720-946-1388, www.buntport.com. Reviewed November 3.
Impulse Theater. Basements and comedy go together like beer and nuts or toddlers and sandboxes. The basement of the Wynkoop Brewing Co., 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. Presented by Impulse Theater in an open-ended run, Wynkoop Brewing Co., 1634 18th Street, 303-297-2111 or www.impulsetheater.com.
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The King and I. Some of the problems with this production are inherent in the show itself. With its emphasis on strong women and abhorrence of anything resembling slavery, The King and I was progressive for its time, but no artist can entirely escape the myths and preconceptions of his own culture. So Rodgers and Hammerstein showed the people of Thailand as caricatures, the women seductive and giggly, the men stiff as cardboard cutouts. The King -- in some ways and on his own terms a wonderfully humorous and quixotic character -- is still in need of civilizing. And who best to do it but a white, upper-class Englishwoman? The songs endure. No one ever wrote better love songs than Rodgers and Hammerstein. Shelly Cox-Robie makes Anna charming and radiant, and her voice is sweet and pure. Wayne Kennedy does sterling service as the King, though he makes the character funny and cuddly; there's no hint here of the dangerous, mercurial figure we expect, and that would jolt the plot into life. Presented by the Boulder Dinner Theatre through March 26, 2006, 5501 Arapahoe Avenue, Boulder, 303-449-6000, www.theatreinboulder.com. Reviewed November 10.
Naked Boys Singing! No false advertising here -- the show's about naked boys singing. The real thing. The full monty. Seven of them, some younger, some a little older, a couple more buff than others, flaunters and flirters and would-be hiders, and every one of them gallantly baring his body and showing his all. The production has no dialogue, plot or characterization; everything hinges on the songs, and some of them are pretty good -- the humorous narcissism of "Perky Porn Star"; the Brechtian rhythms of "Jack's Song," with its hilarious choreographic simulation of masturbation; the unexpected devilry of "The Bliss of a Bris." The serious songs work less well. This is a show that needs to be staged with an exuberance and energy that's somewhat lacking in the Theatre Group production. Presented by Theatre Group in an open-ended run, Theatre on Broadway, 13 South Broadway, 303-777-3292, www.theatregroup.org. Reviewed October 27.
Realism: The Mythical Brontosaurus. Known for a prankish and highly literate experimentalism, Buntport Theater is currently experimenting with realism. Of a sort. Jack lies on his bed, alternately reading and staring into space. He's suffering a crisis of faith centered on the status of the brontosaurus. Into Jack's house blunders his sister, Fiona, with her fiancé, Michael. Once she realizes that Jack is closed in his room, Fiona tries everything in her power to get him out. Michael, meanwhile, needing to take a dump, is interested only in some quiet time alone in the bathroom. The quartet of performers is rounded out by Ben, Jack's calm and commonsensical lover, who is far more willing than Fiona to allow Jack to untangle his skein of twisted emotional and philosophical speculation on his own. The play touches on heavy themes, but the writing is light, deft, witty and completely lacking in sentimentality. And it turns out that the Buntporters are skilled and appealing straight actors. Presented by Buntport Theater in rotation with Horror: The Transformation through December 10, 717 Lipan Street, 720-946-1388, www.buntport.com. Reviewed October 20.
September Shoes. The play tells the story of a couple, Gail and Alberto, who are returning to the desert town of Dolores, where they grew up, to attend the funeral of Gail's aunt. This aunt, proprietor of a Chinese-Mexican restaurant, brought Gail up, but Gail's feelings toward her are ambivalent. Alberto, too, has his problems. His younger sister, Ana, was killed in a traffic accident when they were in their teens. In Dolores, the couple encounters two people. There's the cemetery groundsman, Huilo, who tends the graves and carves a list of all the town's dead on what looks like a tall, red pillar but is in fact one leg of an enormous chair Huilo has built so that when God returns to Earth, he'll have somewhere to rest. There's also Cuki, the maid at the hotel where Gail and Alberto are staying. She steals shoes, takes them home and nails them to her wall. She believes she can read character and destiny in their worn contours. But the playwright simply doesn't have the love of language or the skill to evoke the feelings he wants to evoke. The script is full of clunkers. For the most part, the characters are ciphers, and the plot is paper-thin. Presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company through December 17, Ricketson Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org. Reviewed November 3.