I Am My Own Wife. The subject of I Am My Own Wife is German transvestite Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, born Lothar Berfelde in 1928 Berlin, a collector of antiques who survived both World War II and the Communist years in East Germany. But the play is as much about author Doug Wright's relationship with von Mahlsdorf and the fascination he felt on first encountering her in the early 1990s and touring her Grunderzeit Museum. For Wright, von Mahlsdorf was a gay icon of sorts, a keeper and cherisher of history, someone who had "navigated a path between the two most repressive regimes the Western World has ever known -- the Nazis and the Communists -- in a pair of heels." But he eventually discovered that von Mahlsdorf had served as an informer for the Stasi, providing the information that sent a fellow antique collector to prison -- and this cast an ambiguous light backward on everything he knew about her. Actor Erik Sandvold's performance is amazing, and his careful, pressed-lipped characterization reminds us that von Mahlsdorf could only have survived by presenting a meticulously constructed exterior to the world. But the problem with the play is that we never really feel we know her. She never appears as engaging or as heroic as she apparently did to Wright, and her fall from grace doesn't seem particularly astonishing, either. Still, there is something deeply interesting in the spectacle of a unique individual life buffeted by history and the endless acts of accommodation, greed and self-protection required to survive. Presented by Curious Theatre Company through October 14, 1080 Acoma Street, 303-623-0524, www.curioustheatre.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 Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow. There's quite a bit wrong with this production, but what's wildly -- and exactly -- right is Next Stage's choice of a play to open its season, and also the casting of An Nguyen as the protagonist. Author Rolin Jones wrote Jenny Chow when he was 29. It's a young man's play, a bit ragged, searching, uneven in tone and lacking a definitive ending, but it's a lovely, evocative piece nonetheless. Jennifer Marcus was adopted from China as a baby, and she's never felt quite at home in her gated California community with her amiable, ex-fireman father (who sits on the roof scanning the hills for fires) and her high-powered, professional mother. She has a genius-level IQ -- and knows it -- but suffers from OCD, acute agoraphobia and her mother's too-high expectations. But Jennifer has a plan for meeting her birth mother. Since she obviously can't get to China -- she can't even leave the house -- she will build a robot and send it in her place. While all of this is extraordinarily inventive, swift, satiric and funny, the tone is different in the scenes between Jennifer and her parents, which are sometimes a touch sentimental and at other times wrenchingly dramatic. Nguyen takes a straightforward and understated approach to the role of Jennifer. She comes across as sincere and lost and likable, and you believe in both her dazzling intelligence and the grief and craziness she tries so hard to fight off. Presented by Next Stage through September 23 at the Phoenix Theatre, 1124 Santa Fe Drive, www.nextstagedenver.com.
Something Is Rotten. Just as all the action of Hamlet hinges on an injunction by the ghost of Hamlet's father, everything that happens in Something Is Rotten is set in motion by a ghost -- in this case, the ghost of a pink-striped sock that insists the three performers mount a production of the Shakespeare play. Julius, the weirdly smiling, dim-witted but steel-willed owner of the sock, bullies two friends, Harold and George, into fulfilling the command. We never really know exactly who these men are or why they're on stage. George is clearly an actor -- or at least someone who wants to act -- but Julian and Harold are stumbling amateurs. They discuss their roles and argue about how to act them, bicker, shush each other and improvise when panicked. The show is as ingenious as it is low-tech, and a lot of intensely clever and hilarious things happen. Ophelia is played by a goldfish, which makes the Queen's line "Your sister's drowned, Laertes" particularly poignant. Polonius is a Teddy Ruxpin bear and Laertes a Tonka truck. Fortunately, the requisite catharsis-providing pity and terror aren't absent from this interpretation. The shrieks of grief and rage that rend the final scene would move a statue to tears -- albeit tears of laughter. It's clear from the pace of the show, the relaxed tension of the actors, that Buntport has mastered its medium. These guys don't have to hit you over the head with their actions or try to underline the cleverness of their inventions; they know exactly what they're doing. On an almost empty stage, using nothing but their minds, voices and bodies, along with a few props, they're making theater magic right in front of your eyes. Presented by Buntport Theater through September 30, 717 Lipan Street, 720-946-1388, www.buntport.com.
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