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.
Moby Dick Unread. When the Buntporters say that you don't have to have read the novel to enjoy their Moby Dick Unread, they're telling the truth. This play is as inventive as everything the company does, making clever use of space arrangements and objects (a rope ladder, buckets of water suspended from the ceiling), and combining parody and homage. As always, the actors create their low-tech special effects with what seems like touching earnestness while their faces and bodies comment ironically on those effects. "We're making do," various members of the cast keep telling us after particularly iffy or unexpected pieces of business. Because the style is so unpretentious, the heavy subject matter seems light and palatable, yet it's never trivialized. And the prologue, which uses an aquarium and a wind-up toy whale to present the entire action of the play, is worth the price of admission. Presented by Buntport Theater Company through April 28, 717 Lipan Street, 720-946-1388, www.buntport.com. Reviewed April 12.
Mrs. Warren's Profession. Though it's filled with George Bernard Shaw's usual spot-on analysis and a fair share of his parody and wit, Mrs. Warren's Profession is an early and far-from-perfect piece of theater. It's talky, of course, and peopled by characters who seem intended more to illustrate the author's political points than to live and breathe on a stage. The play scandalized Victorian England because Mrs. Warren is not only a prostitute, but a cheerfully unrepentant one. She and her daughter, Vivie, have spent most of their lives apart and are about to be reunited as the play opens. Two steely, Shavian women, they have a couple of major clashes before the evening is over. Mrs. Warren wins handily in the first round. But once Vivie learns that her mother has never abandoned her calling, she turns decisively against the older woman; the second round is hers. Almost all of the males who cluster around these two females are pure caricatures. Vivie's suitor is Frank, the charming and aimless son of a local rector, the Reverend Samuel Gardner. Gardner has sown his own share of wild oats, and he is clearly intended as a mockery of the church. Then there's Praed, the architect, a decent but sentimental man who represents the arts, and Sir George Crofts, whose straightforward villainy is sometimes oddly appealing. The casting in this production is uneven, and the English accents are a problem -- but Jeanne Paulsen is strong and emotionally convincing as Mrs. Warren. Presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company through April 21, Space Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org. Reviewed April 5.
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Pure Confidence. Though it has sad and even bitter undertones, Pure Confidence is essentially a comedy -- about slavery. The central figure is one we recognize from myth and folklore: the trickster, in this case a jockey named Simon Cato, who has an almost magical ability with horses. The action starts in 1860s Kentucky, and Cato is a slave. The horse he races belongs to his owner, Colonel Wiley "The Fox" Johnson, with whom Cato likes to argue. It's odd to see a funny play about slavery; according to his blog, playwright Carlyle Brown intended "to take what the average person thinks he or she knows about slavery and beat it with a hammer right before their eyes." No doubt there were slaves and owners who, like the characters in this play, felt genuine warmth toward each other. Brown doesn't shy away from showing this; neither does he downplay the ambiguity and anger within such relationships. Nonetheless, the overall story seems to downplay the ugliness of the slave system, and the broad acting style is, like the script, sometimes a little too cute. Presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company through April 21, the Stage, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org. Reviewed April 12.
Ragtime. 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 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 figures are also woven into the action. This production is a joy, buoyed by strong performances and crammed with memorable moments and musical numbers. Presented by Boulder's Dinner Theatre through May 26, 5501 Arapahoe Avenue, Boulder, 303-449-6000, www.theatreinboulder.com. Reviewed March 22.