Curse of the Starving Class. The moment you walk into the theater, you know you're in Sam Shepard country — a place suffused with memories of the mythic Old West, but where the breadth and purity of that myth serve only to underline the disappointing realities of contemporary life. You see a gorgeous blue sky arching over the furnishings of a dingy family home: a table with chairs, a kitchen counter, an ancient refrigerator that will get slammed open and closed many times during the course of the evening, its perpetual emptiness symbolizing the spiritual vacuum at the heart of this family's life. And what a family it is. There's drunken, violent Weston; his two children, manchild Wesley and adolescent daughter Emma; and their wife and mother, Ella, who appears not to care a whit about any of them. As always with Shepard, there's a continuing, almost metaphysical subtext expressed in strong images that are not only verbal, but made concrete and visual: the refrigerator, the figure of a man — Weston — asleep on a table piled with dirty clothes while his son silently watches; a live lamb in a pen; Wesley pissing on a chart his sister has constructed for her class that shows how to cut up a frying chicken. Director Chip Walton and his cast have made the characters even more cloddish than they appear in the script, and sometimes the interpretation edges into caricature. The script is not Shepard at his best, but even lesser Shepard offers dark, ironic humor and startling dramatic moments. Presented by Curious Theatre Company through October 18, 1080 Acoma Street, 303-623-0524, www.curioustheatre.org. Reviewed September 11.
My Name Is Rachel Corrie. Killed by an Israeli bulldozer while trying to protect a Palestinian home in Gaza, 23-year-old Rachel Corrie was wistful, observant, silly, intense and dreamy. But she was no dope, no moony-eyed kid. Rachel was extraordinarily smart and talented, and a video clip of her at the age of eleven reading a poem she'd written about hunger attests to the devotion to social justice that fueled her brief life. British actor Alan Rickman and journalist Katharine Viner created this play from Rachel's journals, scraps of poetry, and e-mails home to her parents. As Rachel, Charlotte Brecht Munn is far more active than Julie Rada was in another production in Denver last year. Michael French's direction is troubling, too. Why does he have Rachel forever taking things out of her duffel bag and stuffing them back in? Why so little stillness, so few moments of silence? But still, there's strength in this production, and toward the end of the evening, the distractions recede. When Munn stops fiddling with props and simply speaks Rachel's words with truth and passion, the result is stunning. Presented by Theatre 13 through September 28, Dairy Center for the Arts, 2590 Walnut Street, Boulder, 888-512-7469, www.theatre13.org. Reviewed September 18.
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Twelve Angry Men. The characters are straight-up '50s stereotypes: the wishy-washy adman; the mindless sports fanatic; the pathetic old guy whose life is lonely and filled with regret; the onetime slum kid; the paranoid racist; the Eastern European immigrant — Jewish, no doubt — who, bearing the heavy weight of his own history on his shoulders, shows a deeper respect for this country's principles and ideals than most Americans do; and, of course, the loudmouth with the hair-trigger temper whose rage is just a cover for the grief and loss roiling in his chest, a man we know will end up repentant and in tears. But even though it's dated, the play is intelligent and well-crafted, with a plot that clicks along nicely. And you can't really fault Reginald Rose, who wrote the original TV script, or Sherman Sergel, who adapted it, for being prisoners of their times; every one of us is. Twelve Angry Men makes some points that are as valid today as they ever were. In a hot room around a long table, a group of jurors meets to decide the fate of a sixteen-year-old on trial for the murder of his father. We're never told the kid's race, but he seems to be black. Eleven of the jurors believe in his guilt; only Juror 8 feels doubt, and he insists on examining the evidence piece by painstaking piece. The men argue, yell and sometimes threaten each other, and the play becomes an examination of character. This is a clean, skillful production by Spotlight Theatre Company, now at home in the John Hand Theater; the cast members work well both individually and as an ensemble. The result is a crime procedural as entertaining as an episode of Law & Order, only smarter, more tightly constructed and better intentioned. Presented by Spotlight Theatre Company through September 27, John Hand Theater, 7653 East First Place, Lowry, 720-880-8727, www.thisspotlight.org. Reviewed September 4.