A Body of Water. In Lee Blessing's play, two middle-aged people wake up one morning in a beautiful house near a lake — or perhaps the shimmering they glimpse through the windows comes from more than one lake or inlet; they're never quite sure. They have no idea who or where they are, or why they've awoken together. The couple doesn't seem unduly rattled by this, however, calmly speculating about whether they're married and whose house they're currently occupying. A young woman arrives wearing a jogging suit and bearing bagels. She seems to know the couple's tastes as well as their identities, and tells them that their names are Moss and Avis. But her answers to the rest of their questions are anything but helpful; she says she's their daughter and then says she isn't. She's sometimes affectionate, sometimes teasing, often contemptuous, and periodically downright vicious. As the plot unfolds, we realize the playwright may be playing tricks with time as well as memory. Perhaps what we're seeing isn't in sequence: What we think is the morning after may in fact be the morning before, or may be occurring weeks later. The tone of the play is ambiguous, too: You can't tell if it's a deep metaphysical exploration or a very highbrow murder mystery. A Body of Water is engrossing, but it has limitations. Moss and Avis are nice, educated people who'd be interesting if they had anything stored in their minds — but they don't — and they have no ability to change or develop over the course of the action. And as an intellectual puzzle, this play disappoints, but if you let yourself simply relax into the mood and mystery, you'll find it worthwhile. Presented by Modern Muse through February 24 at the Bug Theatre, 3654 Navajo Street, 303-780-7836, www.modernmusetheatre.com. Reviewed February 7.
Closer. The four people in Patrick Marber's play keep switching partners — and it's never clear why. They fall passionately, declare their love, then bed-hop off, betraying each other with such frequency that sometimes it's hard to remember just who's with whom at any particular moment. And they don't do any of this with pleasure. The scene is London. Dan, an obituary writer who wants to be a novelist, meets Alice when she steps into the street without looking and gets hit by a taxi. Alice is a stripper, volatile and vulnerable, and while the two are seated on a bench in a hospital emergency room, they fall in love. Larry, a dermatologist, stops for a brief view of the gash on Alice's leg before moving on; he'll eventually become the fourth member of the quartet. The next scene occurs after Dan and Alice have spent a few happy years together. He's finally come up with a publishable novel, which happens to be about Alice. He arrives at the studio of photographer Anna to get his jacket photo taken, and promptly falls for her. This production, by a new Denver company, is solid and has moments of inspiration. Although the dialogue — brief lines that obscure meaning as much as they expose it — is bitingly funny, Closer isn't one of those fizzy romances in which the changing of sexual partners becomes a waltz. Unless it's a waltz macabre. With the possible exception of Alice, you're not charmed by the characters, and you don't empathize with them, either. But you can still feel the sadness, anger and bitterness beneath their actions, understand the way people hurt, exploit and even destroy each other. Presented by Uncorked Productions through February 23, Bindery/Space, 720 22nd Street, 1-877-UNCORK2, www.uncorkedproductions.org. Reviewed January 31.
The Last Five Years. This intimate two-person musical involves the breakup of a marriage. When Jamie and Cathy met in New York, he was an aspiring writer and she an actress. Success came for him fast, while she continued to inhabit the dreary, ego-pummeling world of auditions and summer stock — with predictable results for their relationship. The songs — solos, with one exception — reveal a triumphant Jamie noticing his effect on other women and fighting the desire to utilize it, with a sulky Cathy refusing to attend his publishing party. He resents her neediness and insecurity, she his arrogance and self-involvement. Playwright Jason Robert Brown has hit on an interesting device to make this relatively commonplace story more poignant and more complex: While Jamie relates events as they happened, Cathy reveals them backwards. At the very beginning, she weeps over Jamie's goodbye letter, and minutes later, he erupts onto the scene singing rapturously about the "shiksa goddess" he's just met. Chris Crouch and Shannan Steele are both terrific performers, brimming with energy, poised and charismatic, possessed of lovely, expressive voices. Crouch makes Jamie real and funny and quirky, and Steele is often touching as Cathy — though I wish both would avoid that awful, dissolving-into-self-pitying-tears style that's come to dominate singing in musicals these days. Still, this is an emotionally exuberant production, staged in a smooth, comfortable style, and enjoyable even though it's far from thought-provoking. Presented by Denver Center Attractions through June 29 at the Galleria Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org. Reviewed February 14.
Lydia. The central figure in Octavio Solis's world premiere is a brain-injured young girl who rises periodically to speak to the audience, then subsides again on her pallet in the middle of the family living room, grunting and moaning. Trapped in her stiffening body, Ceci burns with sexual desire and a longing to continue her tragically interrupted life. Her family is completely dysfunctional — and apparently was so before the car accident that damaged her. Into this charged environment comes Lydia, an illegal immigrant hired as a maid, and her arrival sets off a cascade of tumultuous events. Lydia is the sexy, healthy, confident young woman Ceci can never be, and the two young women form an instant understanding, with Lydia tending to Ceci, breaking her terrible isolation and translating her guttural howls for the others. But is Lydia ultimately a force for good or ill, a life-giver or a representative of death? The script evokes a multitude of charged ideas: the painful realities of exile and the ways in which people adjust to or are broken by it; homosexuality in a macho culture; sex as a wild, chaotic impulse that can lead to spiritual imprisonment or joyous freedom; the redemptive power of art; Vietnam; the politics of immigration as seen by those in the States either legally or illegally; and, of course, the lies and secrets that both glue families together and hurl them apart. But Lydia also has flaws. You can think up mystical or metaphorical explanations that make all the events cohere, but somewhere, somehow, at some point — and I don't mean in a literal or reductive sense — the author should give you some hint, and he simply doesn't. Solis just tosses all these charged elements together and leaves them for you to sort out, and by the end of the evening, you're begging for clarity. Presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company through March 1, Ricketson Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org. Reviewed February 14.
9 Parts of Desire. Heather Raffo is the daughter of an American woman and an Iraqi father, so she's uniquely qualified to bring the two cultures face to face in this one-woman play about the lives of Iraqi women. She herself is represented by one character, an American who feels the current war tearing at her soul and talks about the frantic worry she feels for aunts, uncles and cousins, while all around her in New York, life goes on as usual. And she ponders the fact that in America, it's well understood that a single traumatic event can distort your life forever, yet the Iraqis have faced one trauma after another: the vicious rule of Saddam Hussein, the war against Iran, the 1991 war, the years of deprivation brought on by the embargo, and now the daily violence of this second Gulf War. Based on a decade's worth of interviews, Raffo's script includes insights as revelatory as they are simple, with one woman's insights illuminating or deepening another's, their language interweaving to create a rich tapestry of female experience that communicates a sense of unity and power. On stage for two hours, Karen Slack gives a strong, beautiful, courageous performance. Presented by Curious Theatre Company through February 23, 1080 Acoma Street, 303-623-0524, www.curioustheatre.org. Reviewed January 17.
Plainsong. Kent Haruf's novel won critical acclaim for its quiet beauty, and Eric Schmiedl's stage adaptation — miraculously — comes close to doing the original justice. Plainsong tells the intertwined stories of several people in a small Colorado town on the plains: a pregnant teenager who's thrown out of the house by her mother and eventually finds shelter on the isolated ranch of a pair of bachelor brothers; a high-school teacher whose wife has descended into a debilitating depression and is raising their two young boys on his own; his brisk, lonely colleague, Maggie; a viciously disruptive student and his hostile, know-nothing parents. The plot has less to do with forward movement than with a kind of unfolding. Schmiedl has kept much of the novel's language, which remains a constant, steady pulse beneath the work, and the direction of Kent Thompson, who commissioned this piece, is respectful and restrained. On an almost bare stage dominated by a sweeping sky, the actors seem small and their work devoid of ego. John Hutton's performance as schoolteacher Tom Guthrie is pitch-perfect; Kathleen McCall's Maggie as controlled and careful as she is tender. Much hinges on Mike Hartman and Philip Pleasants as the ranching brothers, and both are first-rate: funny, touching and stiffly, oddly dignified, with Hartman's unruly eyebrows waving like weeds and Pleasants's natural expressiveness colliding with his character's taciturnity. All of these people have been shaped and hardened by their environment, and also made more essentially themselves. It's their ordinariness and specificity that make Plainsong's themes universal. Presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company through February 23, Stage Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org. Reviewed February 7.
Starship Troy: Fame. By 8 p.m. the place is jammed. The audience looks young, some as young as high-schoolers, others in college; there are couples, gay and straight, and a scattering of older folk. Starship Troy is one of Buntport's informal efforts to create cheap, fun, accessible theater. It is a dramatized cartoon, each episode lasting about 45 minutes. The premise: A dump truck orbits space on a mission to clean things up. Its addled crew includes all the usual Buntport suspects: Erik Edborg, who for some reason has dryer-duct tubing sticking out of his front and who cuddles a white stuffed animal; cynical Hannah Duggan; Erin Rollman as an expressionless android (watching Rollman trying to remain expressionless is a comic feast); half-ape Brian Colonna; and Evan Weissman as something, well, something epicene and highly sexualized. An audience member volunteers as Ensign McCoy, who — in a tribute to South Park's Kenny, and perhaps to the Goon Show's Bluebottle before him ("You have deaded me again!") — gets killed in every show. This is throwaway theater in the best sense. If a line thuds to earth, no matter; it's gone as soon as it's said. If a piece of business is pure brilliance — too bad! It'll never be seen again, either. But what the hell, there's always another episode. Presented by Buntport Theater every Tuesday and Wednesday through May, 717 Lipan Street, 720-946-1388, www.buntport.com. Reviewed November 15.
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