The Caretaker. The setting is a grimy, one-room flat filled with papers, boxes and mismatched bric-a-brac. It's an appropriate mole hole for sad, befuddled Aston, who thinks he's good with his hands, tinkers constantly with a screwdriver and dreams about building a shed in the yard -- but it also serves as a metaphor for the inside of his disheveled mind. At the play's beginning, a leather-jacketed man stands dead center. This is Mick, Aston's brother and the owner of the building. He leaves and Aston enters with Davies, an old tramp he has rescued and brought home with him. Although the plot of The Caretaker doesn't entirely make linear sense -- all three characters engage in elaborate self-deceptions, and two of them use language more to confuse than to illuminate -- the play isn't really that opaque, and it involves a constant shifting of power. At the beginning, Davies seems grateful to Aston for taking him in, but he soon turns bullying and querulous. Both Aston and Mick offer him a job as caretaker, and he starts playing the brothers against each other. Under the direction of Terry Dodd, the actors give intense and absorbing performances that acknowledge the play's subtleties and subtext without stinting on its twisted passions. Presented by Paragon Theatre Company through July 1, Phoenix Theatre, 1124 Santa Fe Drive, 303-300-2210, www.paragontheatre.com. Reviewed June 8.
Four Queens - No Trump. The scene is Deola's dog-grooming salon, where Deola is also setting herself up as a psychic. Three of her friends meet here weekly to play bid whist, and on this occasion they are joined by a fourth, Edna, a newly divorced friend of Deola's from Texas. Much of the first act revolves around the game, apparently a tradition in many African-American circles -- a raucous, competitive, high-spirited tradition that calls for equal parts aggression and finesse. The script has a few weaknesses, but it's also funny and good-natured, and writer-director Ted Lange has assembled a group of high-spirited divas to perform it. You know that any play featuring four women is going to cover certain topics -- tight shoes, saggy breasts, food, sex and men -- but at least this one puts its own spin on them. The plot gets more contrived and less interesting when Edna falls for Jefferson, a high school history teacher. Overall, though, this is a party you don't want to miss. Presented by Shadow Theatre Company through July 1, Ralph Waldo Emerson Center, 1420 Ogden Street, 303-837-9355, www.shadowtheatre.com. Reviewed June 15.
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 Music Man. Artistic director Michael J. Duran has pulled out all the stops -- no pun intended -- for this production. In a program note, he explains that he was performing in The Music Man on Broadway in September 2001, and all the theaters closed for two nights after 9/11. When the musical reopened that Thursday, it was to an audience of fifty -- but those people needed what the show had to offer, Duran says. The Music Man follows Harold Hill, a huckster who comes into a small Iowa town and sells the townspeople on the idea of a boys' marching band, complete with music, instruments and uniforms. Before he can pull his usual disappearing act, Hill has fallen in love with Marian, the librarian, and -- despite his inability to read a note of music -- won over the town. In the lead, Brian Norber brings huge jolts of energy to the show, and he's abetted by a large, lively cast, a gaggle of charming children and a cheery seven-piece orchestra. The music is sharp, funny and sometimes meltingly lyrical, and you can feel the performers' electric enjoyment in what they're doing. Presented by Boulder's Dinner Theatre through August 19, 5501 Arapahoe Avenue, Boulder, 303-449-6000, www.theatreinboulder.com. Reviewed May 11.
Tennessee Williams in Three Keys. The three one-acts at Germinal Stage are tone poems, mood pieces, as much about language as they are about character and action. They are also about love, loss and despair. Couples reach for each other but are unable to connect; each play ends in stasis. Like all great writers, Tennessee Williams creates a world all his own, a place of lonely people suffering passions so huge they can never be fully expressed or fulfilled. These plays represent fragments of that world. In "Talk to Me Like the Rain," a couple inhabits a sleazy room on New York's Lower East Side. The Man has been sleeping off a three-day drunk; The Woman is one of those fragile, partially demented Williams heroines. In response to The Man's urgent request that she talk to him, she launches into a monologue in which she imagines herself living alone by the sea, growing older and older until she's finally obliterated by the wind; Trina Magness is nothing short of magnificent in the role. The second play is the slightest of the three, but the third, "I Can't Imagine Tomorrow," features another brilliant performance, this time from Ed Baierlein. In a mournful duet performed by a dying woman and her friend, a man who has trouble speaking, he makes stillness and silence riveting. Presented by Germinal Stage Denver through July 9, 2450 West 44th Avenue, 303-455-7108, www.germinalstage.com. Reviewed June 22.
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