A House With No Walls. There's a special category of pundit: the black conservative, those darlings of the Republican Party who profit hugely by attacking other African-Americans. The protagonist of Thomas Gibbons's play is a more thoughtful and credible version of this kind of talker, a brilliant historian named Cadance who is routinely invited to college campuses by Young Republicans and equally routinely shouted down by angry militants. Although famous and wealthy, she muses on the loneliness of the black conservative. A House With No Walls is based on the controversy that erupted in Philadelphia when a local historian revealed that the entrance to a new pavilion for the Liberty Bell planned by the National Park Service was situated over the quarters built for George Washington's slaves. Salif, an opportunistic community activist, insists that an exact replica of the slave quarters should be constructed on the site; Cadance, a member of the panel overseeing the project, attempts to reason with him. At the heart of their disagreement is his view that slavery defines the contemporary black experience and hers that while slavery should be acknowledged, it's time that black people moved beyond their obsession with it. The play wants to be seen as balanced and questioning, a challenge to audience preconceptions, but the deck is stacked. Cadance is clearly a more convincing spokesperson than huckster Salif. The threads of history tangle. Martha Washington's personal slave, Ona Judge, and her half-brother Austin appear. They represent the play's moral center. But Gibbons's characters are pretty much talking puppets for dueling points of view. Presented by Curious Theatre Company through April 21, 1080 Acoma Street, 303-623-0524, www.curious theatre.org. Reviewed March 15.
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Frame 312. There's something listless about this production of Frame 312 -- which is odd, because it features several of Denver's most interesting actors, and the play's premise sounds fascinating. Playwright Keith Reddin postulates that the 22-second Abraham Zapruder film of John F. Kennedy's assassination that most Americans know about and which was minutely examined by the Warren Commission, was, in fact, edited. The unedited original remained in the hands of Lynette, an editorial assistant at LIFE magazine; one of the excised frames -- frame 312 -- showed the president's head slamming backward, indicating that there was a second shooter. In a series of brief scenes, the play moves backward and forward in time from 1963 to 1998. You keep waiting for the plot development that will explain the significance of all this, but it never comes. Is Frame 312 supposed to be a political thriller, or a reminder of the still-unsolved mysteries surrounding the famous death in Dallas? Perhaps Reddin is saying that her corrosive secret destroyed Lynette's life and all possibility of a warm relationship with her children. But you really have to work to come up with an interpretation. The pace of the production is also problematic -- too even, with little forward momentum or sense of urgency and each beat played out at a similar emotional level. Presented by Next Stage through April 7 at the Phoenix Theatre, 1124 Santa Fe Drive, 720-209-4105, www.nextstagedenver.com. Reviewed March 22.
Ragtime. With this show, it feels as if Boulder's Dinner Theatre has opened the doors and let in a great whoosh of invigorating air. Artistic director Michael J. Duran picked one hell of a musical to stage, one that's based on an important book and marries a meaningful plot with a smart, perceptive script and terrific songs. Knowing he'd have trouble finding a full cast for Ragtime -- several of the most important characters are African-American -- he teamed up with Jeffrey Nickelson of Shadow Theatre Company and ended up hiring several Shadow actors, with Nickelson himself playing the enigmatic angel-devil Coalhouse Walker. The energy and discovery created by this fusion of talents is palpable on the stage. E. L. Doctorow's novel is about the lives of differing groups in America: citizen and immigrant, white and black, the privileged and the poor; historical events and specific historical figures are also woven into the action. This production is a joy, buoyed by strong performances, crammed with memorable moments and featuring musical numbers that span the spectrum from meltingly lovely to funny to wildly exhilarating. Presented by Boulder's Dinner Theatre through May 26, 5501 Arapahoe Avenue, Boulder, 303-449-6000, www.theatreinboulder.com. Reviewed March 22.