Aphrodisiac. Playwright Rob Handel's inspiration is the affair between Congressman Gary Condit and intern Chandra Levy, which erupted into the media when Levy disappeared in 2001. Her body was discovered a year later; although suspicion clouded his career, Condit was never officially accused of murder. Aphrodisiac approaches this story obliquely. Handel's congressman, Dan Ferris, and his mistress, Ilona Waxman, never appear on stage; instead, Ferris's son and daughter listen to the news, analyze the affair and speculate on who their father really is, role-playing in an attempt to heighten their understanding. Although this is to some extent a play of ideas -- and even more a play about play-acting -- Alma and Avery are real characters, products of a sadly dysfunctional family. Monica Lewinsky herself appears toward the end, as the siblings argue in a coffee shop; the fact that her presence doesn't remind us of a thousand snickering late-night jokes is a tribute both to Handel's playwriting and to Mare Trevathan's riveting performance in the role. When she describes how she wept on Clinton's chest after he refused to give himself fully by coming in her mouth -- and realized even as she wept that his attention was not on her but on his chair in the Oval Office -- we finally understand the tightness and intricacy of the sex-power knot. Under the hand of director Bonnie Metzgar, this is a wonderful evening of theater, an elegant, sure-footed production of a fascinating contemporary play. Presented by Curious Theatre Company through February 24, 1080 Acoma Street, 303-623-0524, www.curious theatre.org. Reviewed January 11.
Bad Dates. This play has the familiar feel of a long night spent with a girlfriend after she's suffered a breakup, one of those nights when you can offer nothing but a shared bottle of wine, anything sweet you have lurking in the fridge and a loving ear. Playwright Theresa Rebeck provides a script that's probably a good bit sharper and funnier than anything you and your girlfriend could come up with, however, and actress Diana Dresser makes a fine best friend, all vulnerability and confiding charm, with just a touch of pure craziness. Haley, a single mom, runs a trendy restaurant (duly baptized as such by the New York Times) that was once a money-laundering front for the Romanian mob. As the play opens, her primary concern is to get back into the dating scene after five dry years devoted to earning a living and caring for her daughter. Like most women in this position, she has bad dates. We, her collective best friend, see her preparing for them, and we're in on the aftermath -- which makes for a thoroughly enjoyable evening out. Presented by Modern Muse Theatre Company through February 25, Bug Theatre, 3654 Navajo Street, 303-780-7836, www.modernmusetheatre.com. Reviewed February 15.
Clue: the Musical. The pleasure of this Country Dinner Playhouse production of Clue: the Musical is that it boasts a truly outstanding cast. Which is good, since the music is serviceable rather than clever or melodious, and this is less a show than a big, cheerful game. Cutouts of the murder weapons -- noose, wrench, candlestick and so on -- line the theater walls; there are cards on the tables inviting the audience to guess the killer; the costumes are in brilliant primary colors. The dialogue is silly, but not as utterly inane as that of Nunsense, for example. Since there's no plot and you don't need to empathize with any of the characters, these performers get to strut their stuff in any posing, gesticulating, giggle-making way they can think up, while periodically unleashing terrific singing voices. The action does wear thin after a while, but the show ends on a note of good-humored hilarity. Presented by Country Dinner Playhouse through March 4, 6875 South Clinton Street, Greenwood Village, 303-799-1410, www.countrydinnerplayhouse.com. Reviewed February 1.
Crazy for You. George and Ira Gershwin were, without question, two of the most brilliant tune-meisters of American musical comedy, and in the early 1990s, playwright Ken Ludwig got the bright idea of writing a "new" Gershwin musical. He took familiar 1930s plot elements and created a knowing, affectionate book that both satirizes and pays homage to the musical-comedy genre. And then he grabbed fistfuls of those bloodstream-quickening Gershwin songs and scattered them like jewels along the story's path. Artistic director Michael J. Duran danced in the critically praised 1992 Broadway production of Crazy for You, and he re-creates some of Susan Stroman's choreographic magic here, including the long number that ends the first act and features all kinds of inventive movement as well as axes, hammers and human bodies used as musical instruments. Scott Beyette is a lithe, leaping, tapping wonder as Bobby, whose mother wants him to enter the family business but whose own ambition is to dance. Alicia Dunfee is an unexpected ingenue, perhaps a bit too experienced for Polly and less light on her feet than partner Beyette, but she brings her customary warmth and presence to the role. The voices are fine, and the cast and musicians talented and so enthusiastic that they simply sweep you into the fun. Presented by Boulder's Dinner Theatre through March 3, 5501 Arapahoe Avenue, Boulder, 303-449-6000, www.theatreinboulder.com. Reviewed November 23.
King Lear. Perhaps Shakespeare's bleakest tragedy, King Lear begins with the symmetry and simplicity of folk and fairy tale. Lear, an aging king, conducts a ceremony to divide his kingdom among his three daughters -- but when his youngest, Cordelia, angers him, the plot becomes complex, rich and universal. The result of Lear's fury is violence and pain, the soul-deep testing of everyone around him and, ultimately, the dissolution of both his own mind and his kingdom. Philip Pleasants is an interesting Lear. Though he tends to declaim too much at the beginning, he comes into his own later in the play. The scene in which Lear, now completely mad, gesticulating like a demented marionette and crowned in flowers, meets up with the blinded Earl of Gloucester on the heath is both touching and original. The rest of the cast displays various levels of comfort and skill with Shakespeare. This is not a revelatory King Lear, but in paying close attention to the music and the meaning of the play, artistic director Kent Thompson has created a very creditable production. Presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company through February 24, Stage Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org. Reviewed February 15.
1001. Jason Grote's story of Scheherazade and her 1001 nights is presented in a deliberately arch and overdone way in this world premiere. A doomed bride flits around like a breathless high-school girl; a eunuch affects a comically high-pitched voice; we listen to a lisped tongue twister of almost unendurable dopiness. The disjointedness is intentional; there are hints all along the way that some other reality is stuttering beneath the surface. Then we're in New York, and Grote embeds a contemporary Jewish-Palestinian love affair in a web of allusions, metaphors, stories and references, from Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran to Edward Said's Orientalism, but he focuses less on political and historical realities than on the swirl of myth and fairy tale that characterizes the West's conception of the East. Under the direction of Ethan McSweeny, all of the actors are vital and convincing. The terrific sound is provided by a live DJ, Sara Thurston. Presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company through February 24, Space Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org. Reviewed February 1.
The Pillowman. The play takes place in an unnamed totalitarian society where the protagonist, Katurian, is being interrogated by two cops. Katurian's crime: He has written hundreds of stories in which children are killed, and someone has been imitating the methods in the stories and leaving little corpses around town. Katurian has a brother, Michal, brain-damaged because of the torture inflicted on him as a child by their parents. Violence is the primary focus of The Pillowman, but there's also a wistful, wavering undercurrent, a hope that children might somehow find sanctuary, even if it's in the arms of grotesque killer-cum-savior the Pillowman. One reason all of this is less upsetting than you'd expect is that the murder stories are narrated in the arch, unreal style of fairytales, and the brutality is also deliberately undercut by cynical jokes in the style of such movies as GoodFellas, Reservoir Dogs and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. As in these films, there's no moral center, and we're encouraged to empathize not with the victims, but with the wisecracking style of their attackers. This is also a play about the provenance, power and necessity of stories, and all of the characters are motivated and sustained by the narratives they spin for themselves. There's real originality, energy, subtlety and surprise here, and the play would have a lot more impact if it weren't for the cast's lack of fire. Presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company through February 24, Ricketson Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org. Reviewed January 25.
Pure Piaf. This show is hugely miked and, as if the unnecessary loudness weren't distraction enough, Alex Ryer is in constant movement -- mike visible against her face -- as she turns little circles, gesturing, floats her mantilla-like shawl about her shoulders, walks out into the audience, and at one point sinks to her knees and sobs. The singer has researched Edith Piaf's biography, and the facts she gives are accurate. But the show is repetitive and loosely structured, and the story told without irony or humor and with a terrible self-pity. Ryer can't leave a song alone. She'll start singing one of the great ones -- "Milord," for example -- and then begin talking and talking in her unconvincing French accent until, despite the impeccable playing of her five musicians, all life and integrity has been leached from the number. Presented by the New Denver Civic Theatre through February 25, 721 Santa Fe Drive, 303-309-3773, www.denvercivic.com. Reviewed February 8.
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