Anna in the Tropics. The setting is a small, Cuban-run cigar factory in Ybor City, Florida, at the turn of the last century. In those days, such factories employed lectors to read aloud to the workers. The lector in Nilo Cruz's Anna in the Tropics has chosen Tolstoy's Anna Karenina. As he reads, his listeners find all kinds of parallels between their lives and those of the far-away Russian characters, and the experience brings them to a state of heightened awareness. Just as Anna, trapped in a loveless marriage, falls in love with Vronsky, so Conchita — whose husband, Palomo, routinely cheats on her — moves into a tranced relationship with the elegant, educated lector, Juan Julian. You can't argue with the themes — that literature has the power to change lives, that industrialization has been in so many ways a sad and dehumanizing thing. Still, the play just won't hold together. You can intellectualize about why the characters behave as they do, but you don't feel it in your own chest. The one shining moment is the dazed, inevitable coming together of Juan Julian and Conchita, beautifully performed by Tyee Tilghman and Concetta Troskie. What's lacking from the script could perhaps be provided by acting and direction, but neither director Melissa Lucero-McCarl nor the rest of her cast seem up to it. Presented by the Aurora Fox through October 7, 303-739-1970, www.aurorafox.org. Reviewed September 20.
How I Learned to Drive. "Look at me," Uncle Peck pleads to his young niece, the narrator-protagonist of How I Learned to Drive. "Listen to me." And that's just what she does. Deeply and over a period of years, she ponders her relationship with the uncle who first molested her when she was eleven, a relationship that wound up destroying his life and forever damaging hers. Paula Vogel's Pulitzer Prize-winning script -- which was also presented at Curious Theatre Company's inaugural season ten years ago -- is yet another tale of sexual abuse remembered, but it is told with depth and nuance. The narrator, salaciously nicknamed L'il Bit by her sex-obsessed grandparents, has grown up with very little in the way of teaching or nurturance. The one adult who's unfailingly present and attentive is her uncle. This is a love story -- and a deeply unsettling one. Its genius lies in the way it explodes all our tidy little generalizations and seduces us into empathizing with the victimizer as well as the victim. The story itself is fairly straightforward, but Vogel's telling of it is not. She moves backward and forward in time, punctuates the scenes with phrases from a driving manual, uses deliberate stereotypes, periodically allows the action to veer from deadly serious to almost farcical. Beautifully acted by C. Kelly Leo and Marcus Waterman, this is, for the most part, a first-rate production and a good way to mark the close of Curious's first decade. Presented by Curious Theatre Company through October 20, 1080 Acoma Street, 303-623-0524, www.curioustheatre.org. Reviewed September 13.
John & Jen. John and Jen are not lovers, as the title of this intimate musical might lead you to believe, but siblings, children of a violently abusive father. Jen does everything she can to protect her little brother. But when she leaves for college, becoming a free-spirited, pot-smoking hippie and traveling to Canada with a young man who's avoiding the draft, John is left feeling bitter and betrayed. He has always half-identified with their father, even while fearing him, and he now decides to join the Navy, to be a man, to go to war. He dies in Vietnam. By the second act, Jen's lover has deserted her. She's back in the United States and raising their son — whom she's named John. Filled with guilt over the death of her brother, she holds this John stiflingly close. But he turns out to be a spirited young man with ideas of his own, and clashes are inevitable. Both Gina Schuh-Turner and Mark Giles turn in wonderfully committed performances and, overall, this is a fine, absorbing evening of theater that evokes themes none of us can escape, themes having to do with family and obligation to others, the need to protect our children and the need to let them fly — in short, the blessed and cursed complexity of love. Presented by Nonesuch Theater through October, 216 Pine Street, Fort Collins, 1-970-224-0444, www.nonesuchtheater.com. Reviewed September 6.
Anna in the Tropics
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Mid-Life! The Crisis Musical. Scott Beyette, Alicia Dunfee, Brian Norber, Bren. Eyestone Burron, A.K. Klimpke and Barb Reeves are seasoned, energetic and talented performers, stalwarts of the troupe that's kept Boulder's Dinner Theatre hopping all these years, and they're having the time of their mid-life with Jim and Bob Waltons' script. Perhaps the most memorable number is "Biological Clock," in which Dunfee's character, frantically wanting to have a baby, attempts to coax, bully and force her date into giving up his sperm. There's also a terrific skit in which a middle-aged couple laments their far-from-empty nest, now occupied by a grown-up slacker son. Like all the best humor, it's true as well as amusing, and there's a sweetness at its core. A few of the other sketches flop, and some of the humor is oddly retro, particularly when a trio of men try to reclaim their youthful athleticism in a baseball practice only to be interrupted by simultaneous phone calls from their wives; their humble "Yes, dears" would have drawn chuckles from the old guys in the Borscht Belt. Still, Mid-Life! is far more hip than most dinner-theater fare. Presented through October 28 by Boulder's Dinner Theatre, 5501 Arapahoe Avenue, Boulder, 303-449-6000, www.theatreinboulder.com. Reviewed September 20.
Too Old to Be Loud. Heritage Square is unlike any other dinner theater in the state — and possibly the nation. The facility itself debuted in the 1950s as Magic Mountain, a Disneyesque theme park with whimsical buildings based on Colorado architectural styles. In 1970, it was bought by the Woodmoor Corporation and reincarnated as Heritage Square; soon after, G. William Oakley opened the Heritage Square Opera House, which featured wickedly silly — yet oddly clever — melodramas. Current director T.J. Mullin took over in 1986 and shifted both the name and the focus, alternating hopped-up versions of classic stories with shows that are pretty much a medley of songs. Too Old to Be Loud is the sixth in a series based on an annual reunion in the Boylan High School gym, a thin plot line that serves as the excuse for this talented ensemble to offer some great rock and roll, hilarious sendups of pop stars and a rendition of the Beatles' "Yesterday," during which Mullin gets to reveal his surprisingly melodious tenor. Presented by Heritage Square Music Hall through October 14, 18301 West Colfax Avenue, Golden, 303-279-7800. www.hsmusichall.com. Reviewed July 12.
Vote for Uncle Marty. From the moment you walk into the theater and see the topsy-turvy set, the central metaphor of Vote for Uncle Marty is clear. The suggestion that we live in an upside-down world isn't particularly original, but the way the troupe carries the concept forward is. Buntport usually makes an art of scene-changing and object manipulation, but this set is remarkably stable and solid. It shows a tightly constructed house interior, with carpet on the ceiling and weirdly vertiginous stairs (to go downstairs, you ascend). In this home, Colby, very pregnant, is watching Spanish soaps on television. Her husband, J.J., has a jigsaw puzzle on the table and is attempting to solve it on a theoretical level without actually manipulating the pieces. Several years ago, Colby's sister Heather befriended the affable, empty-headed Marty because she believed he would make a good city councilman. She's been planning his campaign ever since. There's also Colby's Uncle Gene, the only character who seems troubled by the house's topsy-turviness. The Buntporters never tell us why they feel our world is upside down; perhaps they assume that in this time of endless war, secret imprisonment and torture, and government propaganda unquestioningly parroted by the mass media, the problem is obvious. Uncle Marty is far more than political satire, however. These actors have worked together for several years now in a way few other theater artists can match, and their characters are wonderfully wry and entertaining. Presented by Buntport Theater through October 13, 717 Lipan Street, 720-946-1388, www.buntport.com. Reviewed September 13.