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.
Gem of the Ocean. August Wilson set out to write the history of black Americans in the twentieth century in ten plays -- all but one of them set in Pittsburgh's Hill District -- and managed to complete the cycle before dying last fall. Gem of the Ocean is the ninth of these plays, but the first chronologically (it's set in 1904). It's also the only play in which we see the mythical Aunt Ester, whose name is frequently invoked in Wilson's work, in the flesh. The action takes place in Ester's home, which serves as a sanctuary during the troubled period following slavery. On the premises live Black Mary -- a young woman who spends her time cooking, cleaning, doing laundry and serving the others, and who is treated by Aunt Ester with uncharacteristic harshness -- and the wise and phlegmatic Eli. The household gets periodic visits from Rutherford Selig, an itinerant tinker, and Solly Two Kings, a veteran of the underground railroad. And a young man has also been haunting the place, begging to see Aunt Ester because, he says, he needs his soul washed. Wilson takes ideas and images from myth, folk tales and the Bible, shifting them slightly, adding his own weight and shading to create an evangelical play in the best sense of the word. Gem of the Ocean is transformative, a call to action, a paean of praise to freedom -- not the ersatz freedom of political speeches, but the limitless, wild thing itself. Director Israel Hicks has assembled a superb cast for this production, and their performance is an act of tribute and of love. Presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company through February 25, Space Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org. Reviewed February 9.
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.
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 in an indefinite run, 2119 East 17th Avenue, 303-499-0383, www.playwrighttheatre.com. Reviewed November 17.
The Raft. There's one slightly original element in this play: three "Gazes" who surround the central character and apparently represent the critical and unhelpful voices of other people. But otherwise, this is a shallow, sloppily written script that relies on cultural cliches. Marta is attempting to cope with a mid-life crisis by lying around in bed eating chocolate and drinking wine -- Menopause the Musical without the songs. Marta's highly ambitious sister, Elan, is pushing her daughter to attend an Ivy League college and sneering at the University of Colorado, where Marta's two sons appear to be partying and pot-smoking their youth away -- at least until the younger son gets his lover pregnant. Many moments strain credulity, and the plot keeps shedding all over the stage. There's also some real tone-deafness here: No one should be subjected to such pseudo-philosophical lines as "What's your raft?" Presented by Modern Muse Theatre Company through February 26, Bug Theatre, 3654 Navajo Street, 303-780-7836, www.modernmusetheatre.com. Reviewed February 9.
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