Arcadia. There's so much richness to this play that once you've seen it, you want to acquire the text, ask your mathematician friends to explain the science, re-read Byron, study the history of the English garden, and generally try to plumb the ideas that Tom Stoppard has set whirling about the stage, including Newtonian physics, fractals, chaos theory and Fermat's theorem. Still, you don't need to understand all of these to enjoy Arcadia, which brims with charm and wit and whose intertwined mysteries keep you happily sleuthing. The math and science serve as metaphors, vehicles for exploring a very basic set of dichotomies — order and disorder, rational thought versus passion, classicism against romanticism — although the ever-changing dynamics between these dualities breed endless new fusions and, hence, endless new dichotomies. Add one more mystery: the passing of time, the ways in which we interpret the past, and the ways both the past and our interpretations of it influence the present. The action takes place on the Coverly estate in Sidley Park; the time alternates between 1809 and the present. In the past, thirteen-year-old Thomasina Coverly is at her lessons with her tutor, Septimus. Thomasina is a fidgety child, but she's also a prodigy. The next scene takes place in the present, as three very different thinkers attempt to piece together the history of Coverly. Like all good art, Arcadia is more than the sum of its parts. The plotting is profoundly satisfying, whether its pieces are clicking neatly into place or stubbornly failing to cohere, and the script sometimes sports an almost Wildean wit. But though the characters are drawn satirically rather than sympathetically, you find yourself emotionally moved. And that's despite the acting, because while a few performances are good, some roles are miscast, several are embarrassingly badly acted, and the English accents are tooth-grindingly awful. Presented by Firehouse Theater Company through May 17, John Hand Theater, 7653 East First Place, 303-562-3232, www.firehousetheatercompany.com. Reviewed May 8.
The Baseball Show. Evil, malaprop-prone Vincent Vascombe, owner of the Beloit Bulldogs, is determined to hold on to his star player, Bill "The Bomber" Dawson. But Dawson -- aided by his smart, competent fiancée, Helen -- has plans for the majors, and there's a talent scout hanging around. So Vascombe hatches a plot to kidnap Helen, hoping this will throw Dawson off his game. Vascombe can barely speak a word without mangling it -- "Let me induce myself"; "for a stifling fee"; "a talent for stating the oblivious" -- and T.J. Mullin delivers the dialogue with his usual low-key and unflappable aplomb. Most of the other characters find his speech impenetrable; the only person who can translate is the hired muscle, Sid -- as played by Alex Crawford, a wry, peaceful sort of fellow who prefers minding his own business to breaking bones for the boss. Annie Dwyer is irresistible as Vascombe's moll, Rose Louise Romberg; variously bewigged, a crazed amalgam of tough broad and breathy Marilyn Monroe, pouncing and preening, she owns the stage every time she sashays onto it. This show is one of Heritage's best -- for its good humor, flying Nerf balls and the fun, fast musical medley that concludes the evening. Presented by Heritage Square Music Hall through May 18, 18301 West Colfax Avenue, Golden, 303-279-7800, www.hsmusichall.com. Reviewed March 13.
The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged). These are the complete works, but not exactly as Shakespeare wrote them. The cast members — Geoffrey Kent, Matthew Mueller and Stephen Weitz — spend about ten minutes on Romeo and Juliet, complete with lots of mock fighting and a hilarious rendition of Juliet's puzzlement as she attempts to commit suicide with a retractable knife; dispense with the history plays in a quick football game; present a five-minute Macbeth in astounding Scottish accents; make Titus Andronicus into a cooking show; sum up the comedies by twisting all their plots into one insane narrative; and have the audience acting out Ophelia's id, ego and superego during the nunnery scene in Hamlet. The actors add lots of improvised bits to the script; you also get a toy dinosaur that roars, a dummy that stands in for various fight opponents and Ophelia's body, vomit jokes, drag jokes, codpiece jokes, breast jokes, men-acting-effeminate jokes, jokes about guys getting kicked in the nuts and jokes about Mueller throwing tantrums. Yes, this is pretty crude stuff, but the show works. Susan Crabtree has created a big bright set with Shakespeare looming against the back wall, all twinkly and jovial like the Ghost of Christmas Past, while his characters emerge through the portal of his huge bent legs. All three actors are terrific: They have presence, strong voices, a good sense of humor and the ability to engage directly with the audience. I can't remember when I last laughed so hard and so long. Presented by the Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company through May 16. Dairy Center for the Arts, 2590 Walnut Street, 303-444-SEAT, www.thedairy.org. Reviewed May 8.
Crimes of the Heart. Written in 1978, when the feminist movement had woken us up to the extraordinary fact that women could, and frequently do, like each other, Crimes of the Heart is about sisterhood. The three women at the play's center are not only having — as one of them comments — a very bad day, they've had a pretty hard time of it altogether. Their father vanished when they were young; their mother gained national notoriety for hanging the old family cat and then herself. We're familiar with this genre — wacky, soft-focus Southern Gothic — but there's an unexpected deadpan humor to Beth Henley's script that keeps you absorbed, laughing and empathetic and leavens sentimentality. Terry Dodd is that rare director who really likes working with strong, interesting women, and for this production, he's scored a triple. Laura Norman is the center of the action as Lenny, the good sister; she's flanked by Megan VanDeHey and Emily Paton Davis. As different as these three women are, you have no trouble believing that they grew up in the same household; that for each of them, the smell of her sisters' skin and hair is as familiar as the smell of her own; that they understand each other's tics and torments so well that their mockery can be as merciless as their mutual love is unbreakable. Presented by Denver Victorian Playhouse through May 17, 4201 Hooker Street, 303-433-4343, www.denvervic.com. Reviewed May 1.
Dinah Was. The story opens with Dinah Washington, at the height of her fame, arriving at the Sahara in Las Vegas for a show. Though the manager expects her to fill the house, he refuses to give her a room at the hotel, insisting that she stay in the trailer he's prepared for her in the back. Furious, Dinah strips off her fur coat to reveal that she's wearing only a slip underneath, plunks herself down on her suitcases in the middle of the lobby, fishes out a hip flask and proceeds to get drunk, ignoring all arguments, threats and entreaties. Then the action flashes back to show her life, and we watch the star become increasingly drug- and booze-addled, sympathizing with her frustration at being told to stick with rhythm and blues and to tone down her act for television, recoiling from her self-pity and self-destructiveness. There are moving scenes and some wonderful lines — "I can sound whiter than Pat Boone's behind," Dinah says at one point — but the script rambles and repeats, and the characters are stereotypical. And while most of the acting is solid, director Jeffrey Nickelson has allowed a couple of performers to hugely overplay their roles. None of this matters, though, because jazz singer René Marie, who plays Dinah, is a phenomenon, a woman with a strong, humorous presence and a glorious voice. When she sings, you forget you're watching a play and simply lose yourself in the emotion and energy of the moment. Presented by Shadow Theatre Company through May 24, 1468 Dayton Street, Aurora, 720-857-8002, 866-388-4TIX, www.shadowtheatre.com. Reviewed May 1.
Doubt. John Patrick Shanley's Doubt is a short, brilliantly constructed, engrossing play that, on the surface, seems straightforward. But there's a lot going on beneath that surface. The action begins with a voice speaking in the dark. When the lights come up, we see that this voice belongs to Father Flynn, who's standing in the pulpit reciting a parable on the theme of certainty and doubt. Then we're in the study of Sister Aloysius, head of a Catholic school in the Bronx. Sister Aloysius is anything but one-dimensional. A powerful and entirely original character, she may believe in doing good in the world, but it's an abstract, lofty, pure and absolute kind of good, the kind that has nothing to do with comforting a lonely child or encouraging an insecure young colleague. She becomes convinced on only the slightest evidence that Father Flynn is a pederast, and you watch in horror as she pursues the man like an avenging fury through scene after scene. Except that periodically, you decide there's truth to her accusations. Isn't Father Flynn just a little too glib and charming? Doesn't he seem a touch narcissistic? Shanley doesn't tip his hand on this. He defies the desire for certainty that all of us feel, reminding us that not only is doubt inescapable, it's also a rich state of mind, the source of endless permutations of thought and imagination, a deep soil from which vibrant new shapes can appear. Jeanne Paulsen is magnificent as Aloysius, and Sam Gregory is fine as Father Flynn. There's also an extraordinary performance by Kim Staunton as the mother of the boy Sister Aloysius believes is being abused. Presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company through May 17, Ricketson Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org. Reviewed April 17.
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.
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