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, 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.
A Christmas Carol. Written by Richard Hellesen with music by David de Berry, this Christmas Carol has its strengths. It's respectful of the novel, using much of Dickens's original dialogue and description to tell the tale of the miserly businessman, Scrooge, and his conversion to kindness by the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Yet To Come. Also to their credit, Hellesen and de Berry have chosen to retain the dark side of the story and to honor Dickens's social conscience, rather than mounting a production that's purely sweetness and light. The set is charming, and the special effects work well. But this version also feels heavier and more sentimental than the one by Laird Williamson and Dennis Powers that it replaces at the Denver Center, and there are also a few howlers. Why, for instance, costume the Ghost of Christmas Past like some odd combination of golden-haired Vegas showgirl and Glinda the Good Witch? The cast's English accents are all over the place, and Tiny Tim is made so peripheral to the action that he seems almost an afterthought. Presented by The Denver Center Theatre Company through December 24, Stage Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org. Reviewed December 8.
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.
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.
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 Boulder's Dinner Theatre through March 26, 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.
Party of 1. This is a good play to go to with a date, or to attend in hopes of finding one. The show is a sequence of cabaret songs dedicated to the joys and pains of singlehood, slightly reminiscent of I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change, though without the monologues; fizzier and more light-hearted than Sex and the City, but less weighted with ego and pretension. Four appealing people spin through songs with topics ranging from the insecurities raised by meet-and-mingle functions through concerns about bad breath to the intense ambivalence you feel when someone with whom you're having a great relationship actually takes the next step and moves into your apartment. Party of 1 ran forever in the Bay Area, where writer-composer Morris Bobrow is famed for his clever lyrics and bright, listenable tunes. Good-natured and enjoyable, with just an edge of grown-up irony, the show deserves its popularity. Presented by the Playwright Theatre through January 31, 2119 East 17th Avenue, 303-499-0383, www.playwrighttheatre.com. Reviewed November 17.
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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. 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.
Shadowlands. This is a dignified, classy play, but for the most part, oddly lifeless. Set in 1950s England, it begins as C. S. Lewis, the creator of Narnia and a series of deeply Christian books for adults, gives a lecture on the topic of suffering, speculating that it must be a force intended by God to shape and perfect us. Shadowlands is biographical, based on the relationship between Lewis and poet Joy Gresham, who died of bone cancer, although the script takes a couple of liberties with fact and chronology. As the play opens, Lewis is in his fifties and Gresham and her young son, Douglas, blow like a bracing wind into his fusty, ordered, donnish world of tea and muffins. Nonetheless, this act is very static. Lewis and Gresham become friends. They take walks together; they sip tea. We're hoping for witty or insightful repartee. Surely these two writers left behind some bon mots and insights worth stealing in their books and papers? But most of the dialogue is disappointingly earnest and predictable, and the characters simply aren't very sharply delineated. Presented by Bas Bleu through January 7, 401 Pine Street, Fort Collins, 1-970-498-8949, www.basbleu.org. Reviewed December 1.
Unmerciful Good Fortune. The central character in Unmerciful Good Fortune is a young woman named Fatima who believes she can see into other people's futures. As the play opens, she has been arrested for poisoning several customers -- including an eight-year-old girl -- at the fast food joint where she works. Her defense: She has seen the desperation of these people's lives and is saving them from still uglier futures. Dispensing with the services of a lawyer, Fatima demands to speak with a specific district attorney, Maritza -- a woman who spends her days struggling against the callous idiocy of her boss and her evenings tending to her dying mother, Luz. Fatima is a former gangbanger, manipulative, cruel and arrogant. But she's also capable of melting into tenderness. You can see her as one of the three Fates, snipping the thread of human life at will, or you can see her as a troubled, vulnerable child. Jackie Billotte plays the role with a fierce, dark brilliance. Unmerciful Good Fortune is not without flaws. Some of the scenes go on too long, some of the relationships strain credulity. But the play has genuine emotional depth and sweep. Presented by Firehouse Theater Company through December 17, John Hand Theater, 7653 East First Place, Lowry, 303-562-3232. Reviewed December 8.