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 Man Himself. The setting is simple: a white chair dead center, a set of coveralls suspended from a hanger to its right, a table holding sound equipment to its left. A man putters quietly around the stage while bouncy tunes fill the air: "What the World Needs Now," "You've Got a Friend" and "I Got You, Babe." The coveralls and the tunes are connected: Michael, the puttering man, works for a corporation called Component and Supply Incorporated Electrical Supplies, which is also the creator of Happitunes supermarket and elevator music. He's a stickler for procedure, and his co-workers dislike him for it. Eventually we learn a little about his childhood, his non-believer father and the mother who made him take Communion. Some of his lines are particularly telling: "I am only doing what I am told"; "Compassion has nothing to do with it. There are rules." Michael is troubled by Latino hoodlums and the Muslim couple in his apartment building, who drink beer and play loud Arabic rap music. He dislikes unions. In an increasingly demanding and multicultural world, he's unable to find his footing. But he does have a friend, Richard, an evangelical Lutheran who slipped a flier beneath his door one evening. The Man Himself was written by Alan Drury, an Englishman, as a study of how an ordinary person becomes drawn to fascism. Israeli actor and director Ami Dayan has adapted the text with Drury's permission, setting it in Colorado and substituting contemporary American evangelism for fascism, and he gives a riveting and intensely authoritative performance as Michael. Presented through August 19 at Bas Bleu Theater, 401 Pine Street, Fort Collins, 1-970-498-8949, www.basbleu.org. Reviewed August 25, 2005.
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.
The Merchant of Venice. Director Tom Markus, clearly influenced by Trevor Nunn's brilliant 1999 London production, has set his Merchant of Venice in 1930s Italy, as Mussolini began his repression of the Jewish population, and the explicit backdrop does a lot of work, on some level excusing Shylock's miserliness and bloodlust. The fascist elements of the production provide a mildly pleasurable frisson, but they feel more symbolic than real, and they don't really provoke the level of tension that they should. When Shylock's in the courtroom, defiant, surrounded by angry young blackshirts, the scene should be terrifying; you should fear that at any moment Shylock will be clubbed to the ground. But the action feels neither that menacing nor that real. The big trial scene has to belong to someone; usually it's Shylock. Here Sarah Dandridge takes it, playing Portia, and she's killer-tall, graceful and beautiful, with a voice that sounds like pure music when it's animated by real feeling. Overall, this is a cleaner production than we've had from the Colorado Shakespeare Festival in a while, and one that weds the various directorial concepts better with the text. Presented in rotation with The Tempest, As You Like It and Unexpected Shaxpere through August 19, Mary Rippon Theatre, University of Colorado at Boulder, 303-492-0554, www.coloradoshakes.org. Reviewed August 3.
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The Tempest. Director Patrick Kelly has avoided tricks with The Tempest. His production is carried on the shoulders of Matt Penn's Prospero, who towers over the action -- magician, puppet master, Shakespeare's stand-in and creator of almost everything that transpires on stage. The shipwreck that starts the action is nothing but a model boat dashed to the ground by his hands. He maneuvers Miranda into her love for Ferdinand, the son of his rival, and assures that it's requited. He employs two magical creatures to enact his will: Ariel and the witch's son, Caliban, all brutish instinct. This Prospero is complex, anguished, angry, sometimes tender. And, finally, when his enemies are completely subjugated, he chooses mercy over vengeance. But it takes a lot out of him. Renouncing his magic, a weary, saddened and diminished figure, he turns to the audience and asks for release. If the entire cast were working at Penn's level, the production would be a resounding success. Offering her love to Ferdinand with a childlike lack of guile, Tara MacMullen is a charming Miranda. Christopher Young moves well, and suggests flickers of human feeling in Ariel's inhuman bosom. But other performances are uneven, the special effects are weak, and the direction sometimes feels a little muddy. Presented by the Colorado Shakespeare Festival in rotation with The Merchant of Venice, As You Like It and Unexpected Shaxpere through August 19, Mary Rippon Theatre, University of Colorado at Boulder, 303-492-0554, www.coloradoshakes.org. Reviewed August 10.