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.
Girls Only. The trouble with Girls Only, a two-woman evening of conversation, skits, singing, improvisation and audience participation, is that it's so relentlessly nice. Creator-performers Barbara Gehring and Linda Klein have worked together for many years; at some point, they read their early diaries to each other and were transfixed by the similarities and differences they found in them, as well as the insights they gained into their own psyches and the travails of puberty. This theater piece was developed from that material — but not all of that material. "I purposely don't read every diary entry in the show, because it turns out I was kind of mean, and I don't want to be mean," Klein told an interviewer. But mean is funny, and when you cut it out entirely, what do you have to joke about? Girly pink bedrooms, purses, bras, skinny models in glossy magazines. Every time they tell a story with the tiniest bite to it, Gehring and Klein — both talented and appealing stage performers — move instantly to reassure us that they don't mean it. At one point Klein relates an interesting tale about how she came to possess the badly taxidermied body of an electrocuted squirrel as a child; the minute she's completed this funny, freaky moment in an otherwise highly predictable evening, she gives a pouty, don't-get-me-wrong grin and sweetly caresses the squirrel's head. There's enough good material here for a tight, funny, one-hour-long show, but this one stretches on and on, as if Klein and Gehring had been determined to throw every single joke and piece of shtick that occurred to them in the script. Presented by Denver Center Attractions through December 21, Garner Galleria Theatre in the Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org. Reviewed September 18.
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Tiny Alice. Some parts of Tiny Alice are laughably literal. At the beginning, for instance, a Catholic cardinal in full black-and-red regalia tweets affectionately at some caged birds — cardinals, naturally. Other words and images seem to offer familiar themes or easy metaphoric puzzles. But ultimately the play is impenetrable, incomprehensible. Fortunately, this doesn't matter, because it's also brilliant, evocative, funny and so theatrical that audience attention doesn't waver for a single moment. The action begins when a man called Lawyer tells Cardinal that his boundlessly rich female employer is offering the church billions of dollars. Someone must go to her castle to finalize the details, and Julian is chosen for the task. At the castle he meets Butler, who has a puzzling relationship with Lawyer, sometimes angry, sometimes loving. A major feature of this palatial home is a small model of the place set on a table. There's something magical about this model: When one of its rooms begins to flicker, the same room in the actual castle bursts into flame. This strange universe — which combines the hallucinatory red and black of a vampire film with a whimsy reminiscent of Lewis Carroll — is presided over by the not-particularly-tiny Alice, a woman of baffling contradictions. We never know whether playwright Edward Albee intended these characters as real or supernatural figures. Perhaps they represent the corruption of the Catholic Church on earth, or the ways in which the search for purity and for God twists human beings. The scariest possibility is that these characters do truly stand for God, or the workings of His will — which means it's a pretty nasty God we're dealing with, a deity with a truly vicious sense of humor. Presented by Germinal Stage Denver through October 12, 2450 West 44th Avenue, 303-455-7108, www.germinalstage.com. Reviewed September 25.