Bright Room Called Day. Tony Kushner, author of the brilliant Angels in America, clearly wrote A Bright Room Called Day in a state of agitation. Kushner sensed the blot of fascism spreading across America, and he drew an analogy -- by no means original -- between 1930s Germany and Reagan's United States. Much of Bright Room is set in 1932-'33, and dramatizes Germany's descent into darkness. A young, contemporary woman, Zillah Katz, is our guide on this journey. She strides about the stage, exhorting the audience to greater awareness; she's become riveted by the face of a woman in an old photograph. This frames a series of scenes featuring the woman in the photo -- whose name, we learn, is Agnes -- and her friends. When an artist of Kushner's stature sounds the alarm (he's urged theater companies to update the play to reflect current realities), we ought to listen, even if there's not really an idea or analogy in Bright Room that most thinking people haven't already entertained. Nonetheless, this is an important play, and an excellent production. Presented by OpenStage Theatre & Company through February 4, Lincoln Center, 417 West Magnolia Street, Fort Collins, 1-970-221-6730, www.openstage.com. Reviewed January 19.
Frozen. It's hard to deal with murder -- particularly the rape, murder and dismemberment of a child -- without being exploitative. It's hard to explore the issue of forgiveness without sentimentality. But Bryony Lavery's Frozen succeeds on both counts. The title of the three-character play -- involving the child murderer, Ralph; Nancy, the mother of one of his victims; and a psychiatrist, Agnetha, who studies serial killers -- refers both to the morally and emotionally frozen world in which such killers live, and to Nancy's life, which has essentially stopped since the death of her ten-year-old daughter, Rhona. The play begins with a series of monologues, and it's clear each of the characters feels atomized and alone. When Agnetha gives a presentation, Ralph serves as an apparently non-sentient model while she points out various aspects of his cranium. It's only after this that the two of them speak, and the build begins to the scene we know is inevitable, the scene when Nancy and Ralph meet. (William Hahn is riveting as Ralph.) With the exception of a couple of key scenes, the feeling in Frozen is deliberately tamped down, but Lavery's distancing allows us to take in subject matter that would otherwise swamp the senses. Presented by Curious Theatre Company through February 25, 1080 Acoma Street, 303-623-0524. www.curioustheatre.org. Reviewed January 19.
The Holdup. Written by Pulitzer-winning playwright Marsha Norman, The Holdup is a small, charming piece about the myth of the Old West -- or rather, the passing of that myth. The play, set in 1914, opens in darkness as we hear the sad voice of someone preparing to shoot an ailing horse. Then there's another voice, someone making his way to the safety of a cook shack, afraid of a large coyote that's dogging his steps. The second speaker is Archie Tucker, seventeen years old and a timid being who hates violence. Archie's brother, Henry, is a bully and an avid reader of books about famous outlaws. He's hectoring his brother when one of these lawbreakers intrudes in the flesh -- tall, laconic and fast on the draw. The fourth character is Lily, a prostitute-turned-hotel-owner who has always loved the Outlaw. This script could use a bit of pruning, but The Holdup remains entertaining theater. Presented by the Denver Victorian Playhouse through February 18, 4201 Hooker Street, 303-433-4343, www.denvervic.com.
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.
Jesus Hates Me. Ethan lives with his religion-obsessed mother, Annie, in a trailer on a Jesus-themed golf course in rural Texas, where Jesus and his apostles are represented by appropriately dressed (or undressed) store dummies. The sheriff, Trane, is African-American and Ethan's best friend; he's on the hunt for the kidnapper of a little Vietnamese girl. There's also Lizzy, with whom Ethan once had sex; dopey Boone, who ends up in bed with Annie; and Georgie, who tried to kill himself during high school graduation and now -- in one of the script's truly inspired bits -- speaks through a voice box in a strange, low-pitched, mechanized tone that never fails to get a laugh. Parts of the play, now in a world premiere at the Denver Center Theatre Company, are very funny. Other moments sound soggy and Hollywoodish, too sitcom-sincere for the would-be outrageous setting. The action lurches from the rollicking hijinks of the twenty-somethings to the closet scene from Hamlet -- son accusing mother, mother accusing son, incestuous overtones. It's hard to care about the characters, and there's something seriously wrong when the protagonist is feeling more pity for himself than you can muster up for him. Presented through March 11 at the Ricketson Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org. Reviewed January 26.
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 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 February 28, 2119 East 17th Avenue, 303-499-0383, www.playwrighttheatre.com. Reviewed November 17.
Steel Magnolias. Somewhere in the 1970s, we learned that women could like each other, female friendship was precious, and society's insistence that women's concerns were inherently more trivial than the concerns of men was stupid. Robert Harling's Steel Magnolias, written in 1987, is very much in this vein, with a beauty parlor in Louisiana as the setting where six women gossip, wisecrack, fuss with their hair and mourn or celebrate the major events of their lives together. Early in the play, Shelby is being primped and prettied for her wedding. Salon owner Truvy, a woman with a store of quips and a touching faith in the power of cosmetics, bustles around, teasing, combing and spraying. There's also Ouiser, the town eccentric; Claree, widow of the late mayor, who combines a passion for football with a hankering for big-city culture; and little Annelle, whom we first meet as a new hairdresser afraid to touch her customers' heads and who transforms during the course of the play into a born-again Christian. There's a lot that feels dated or manipulative here, yet this heartfelt production is enjoyable, partly because of the performances and partly because -- despite all -- there's still some juice in the script. Presented by Miners Alley Playhouse through February 5, 1224 Washington Avenue, Golden, 303-935-3044, www.minersalley.com. Reviewed January 26.
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