The Clean House. The first act of Sarah Ruhl's The Clean House is close to a perfect piece of theater. On a stunningly evocative, elegantly gray-and-white set, Matilde cleans house for a pair of doctors -- Lane and her surgeon husband, Charles. Matilde hates to clean. She wants to figure out the world's funniest joke. Lane believes in household order, hierarchy and status. But her sister, Virginia, who loves cleaning as much as Matilde loathes it, has a more democratic outlook. For her, mopping, sweeping and chasing dust bunnies are a means of keeping life's ugliness and fear at bay. Secretly, she offers to do Matilde's job for her. The first act concludes soon after Lane's discovery that Charles has fallen in love with a 67-year-old woman on whom he's performed a mastectomy. But the second act gets soggy. Charles's extramarital beloved is Ana, an Argentine woman we're supposed to see as representing some kind of cosmic life force. Perhaps it is possible to transcend death; perhaps humor is indeed the key. But before you transcend it, you have face it full-on. The Clean House never evokes the real horror and ugliness of dying, just dances around the process waving gossamer strands of whimsy. Presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company through April 22, Stage Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org .
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 Ladies of the Camellias. At the end of the nineteenth century, Sarah Bernhardt was the grande dame of French theater and Eleonora Duse her Italian counterpart. Playwright Lillian Groag has created an imaginary meeting of these great stars as they prepare for separate performances of La Dame Aux Camelias in Bernhardt's Théâtre de la Renaissance in Paris. Into this hermetic, self-important, backstage setting blows a chill, bracing wind: Ivan, a Russian anarchist who plans to hold Bernhardt and Duse hostage until his comrades are released from prison. The script is literate, knowledgeable and often funny, but it isn't swift and tight enough to work as out-and-out farce; by the second act, the plot has dissolved into a welter of words as Bernhardt and Duse repeat the same arguments and act out bits of Shakespeare. And when Ivan turns out to be not a revolutionary at all, but only a sulky and frustrated theater director, whatever air is left whooshes out of the play. While Groag demonstrates convincingly that theater does endure over time, she never proves that it matters in the slightest. Presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company through April 22, Space Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org. Reviewed April 6.
Man of La Mancha. Creaking and shuddering, a ladder descends, admitting the sixteenth-century author Cervantes and his manservant into what looks like one of the lower circles of hell. There he will remain at the pleasure of the Spanish Inquisition, he's told, for perhaps an hour, perhaps a lifetime. To mollify his fellow prisoners, Cervantes tells them the story of his novel, which concerns Don Quixote, a country gentleman infatuated with the age of chivalry who imagines himself a knight errant, and who sets out on a quest with his servant, Sancho Panza. Quixote sees a small country inn as a castle, a barber's bowl as a helmet, a brutalized prostitute, Aldonza, as his fair lady, Dulcinea. Periodically, however, his fantasies desert him, and he's forced to deal with the wretched world that everyone else around him sees only too clearly. Some of the songs in this musical edge toward sentimentality, but the script does not downplay the horrors of Cervantes's time -- the casual brutality, the miserable lives of the poor, the terror of the Inquisition. This Country Dinner Playhouse production of the musical is full of fine performances and good voices, and though there's hope at the end, it feels as insubstantial as Quixote's dreams -- but perhaps also as enduring. Presented through May 14 at Country Dinner Playhouse, 6875 South Clinton Street, Greenwood Village, 303-799-1410, www.countrydinnerplayhouse.com. Reviewed March 30.
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 open-ended run, 2119 East 17th Avenue, 303-499-0383, www.playwrighttheatre.com. Reviewed November 17.
Phantom of the Music Hall. You really haven't lived until you've heard Johnette Toye singing Gilbert and Sullivan's "Poor Wandering One." She preens and staggers and makes her mouth into a dark, wide-open square from which emanates a cascade of extraordinary sound. This woman could sing the difficult coloratura parts beautifully if she wanted to -- and every now and then she does emit a tantalizingly perfect trill -- but for the most part, she's too busy barging around like a drunk, demented and utterly delighted-with-itself duck to worry about aesthetics. This isn't Andrew Lloyd Webber's Phantom of the Opera, although it's based on the same Gaston Leroux story. T.J. Mullin has transposed the events to an early-twentieth-century English music hall, where a strange caped figure coaches a beautiful young ingenue into stardom, then abducts her. The plot is only the plain shortcake base on which the skillful cast piles layers of frothy improvisation, hilarious bits and all kinds of songs, some from the appropriate time period, and others that they just bloody well feel like singing. Presented by Heritage Square Music Hall through May 28, 18301 West Colfax Avenue D-103, Golden, 303-279-7800. www.hsmusichall.com. Reviewed April 6.
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Private Eyes. Some critics have compared this play to a set of nested Russian figures, but it's more like a drawing by M.C. Escher. An event makes perfect sense, then it doesn't; you figure out precisely what playwright Steven Dietz is doing, then the insight's gone. Oh, of course, you mutter to yourself, even as the stairway spirals away in impossible patterns. But you don't have to find a linear sequence to enjoy the events unfolding on stage, the witty language that keeps promising and withholding meaning, the back-and-forth tango of accusation and counter-accusation. An actress named Lisa is auditioning for a director, Matthew, then turns up waiting tables when he takes his lunch break. "Cut," someone says. It's Adrian, the real director. There's also Matthew's therapist, Frank, and a strange waitress/private eye/wronged wife. All of these people play out their own tangos of attraction and repulsion, jealousy and love. Private Eyes doesn't leave much of an after-image on your retina, but it does provide the dizzy pleasure you experience on a first-rate carnival ride. Presented by Miners Alley Playhouse through April 30, 1224 Washington Avenue, Suite 200, Golden, 303-935-3044, www.minersalley.com.
Red Scare. This is a hit-and-miss proposition, with mildly amusing moments alternating with laugh-yourself-silly skits and a few out-and-out clunkers. There's nothing particularly sophisticated, surprising or cutting-edge about the renowned Second City's Red Scare, but there is some funny stuff. In one scene, a teacher in a rough school comes into her classroom after hours to find a student planning to rifle her purse -- but in the end, he tells her in song, he couldn't steal from her because "I Saw Your Paycheck." In another, a suicidal Shakespearean heroine is talked out of her despair by a sassy gay friend. There's a good sketch about the exaggerated way white people talk to their black co-workers; a sad-funny bit involving a coach and his cancer-stricken wife; a monologue in which the talented Amber Ruffin gives grandmotherly advice about marriage and childbirth. Presented by Denver Center Attractions through May 21, Garner Galleria Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org. Reviewed February 16.
The Smell of the Kill. Nicky, Molly and Debra are thrown together once a month because their husbands are friends. On this particular occasion, they cluster in the kitchen of Nicky's million-dollar home while the men practice their golf putts in the living room. The women don't particularly like each other at the beginning of the play and they're the closest friends imaginable by the end, so you could call this a female-bonding drama. Except that there's no hugging, and nary a tear in sight. And the bonding arises from a prolonged and far-from-theoretical debate about whether the women's husbands should be allowed to stay alive. Perhaps it should be troubling that by the play's end we're all rooting for a triple homicide, but how can an evening that provides so much malicious fun be wrong? Presented by the Avenue Theater through April 15, 417 East 17th Avenue, 303-321-5925, www.avenuetheater.com. Reviewed February 23.
The War Anthology. There are some evocative moments in The War Anthology, a show comprised of songs, photographs, music and short plays, but it doesn't stand up as either an evening of theater or a trenchant commentary. There's an odd lifelessness to it; there's no throughline, no rhythm or momentum, no center, no integrating concept. And the individual plays feel innocent, detached, as if the authors had taken the ideas for them from history books, movie and television plots or someone else's reminiscences. The best segment is Tony Kushner's "Only We Who Guard the Mystery Shall Be Unhappy," and Paula Vogel's "The Closest I've Been to War" is also touching. But there are many things in this odd assemblage that simply don't work. In "Rain of Ruin," for example, a love affair between a Mexican-American woman and a Japanese man frames questions about the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the love story seems to trivialize the horror of the bombs -- perhaps because the film and photographs so essential to this piece are fuzzy and hard to decipher. Presented by Curious Theater Company through April 29, 1080 Acoma Street, 303-623-0524, www.curious theatre.org. Reviewed March 16.