As You Like It. It doesn't get more minimal than this: As You Like It performed by six people on a stage where the set consists of little besides a large rock, swaths of fabric and a wooden swing; echoing footsteps announce an actor's entry minutes before he actually appears; and everyone changes character by donning a wig, a hat, a jacket or a different expression. The play is about a lot of shenanigans in a forest that, like most of Shakespeare's forests, is an enchanted place where identity becomes porous and gender changeable, and lovers stumble about blindly before falling into each other's arms. Rosalind — one of the most charming of Shakespeare's many smart, enterprising, beautiful young heroines — has the best lines, of course, but the script is full of verbal music. There are some problems with this bare-bones approach; when your actors have to change character every few minutes, many of their characterizations are bound to be broad and shallow. But on the plus side — and this is decisive — the cast's playfulness, talent and good humor add a joy and high-spiritedness you'd never find in a more conventional production. Presented by Modern Muse Theatre Company through February 28, Bug Theatre, 3654 Navajo Street, 303-780-7836, www.modernmusetheatre.com. Reviewed February 12.
Dusty and the Big Bad World. We all know about the Christian right's attacks on textbooks, teachers, Halloween, the arts, public television and the words "happy holidays." And we know what happened when these people finally got their very own president. Dusty and the Big Bad World is based on a real event: the heavy-handed suppression by Bush's Secretary of Education of a children's television show containing a reference to homosexuality. This is a topic ripe for all-stops-out, nasty-minded satire — the kind you get when Christopher Durang takes on the Catholic Church. Unfortunately, playwright Cusi Cram is a real liberal, meaning she's thoughtful and nuanced. She wants to show the education secretary — here called Marianne — as a real person who has faced her own demons; the outspoken liberal, Nathan, as a self-righteous goof and closet chauvinist; and TV producer Jessica as a gay woman willing to compromise her principles to keep her show on the air. So while the first act is lively and filled with sharp-edged humor, the second is just a welter of earnest conversation in which the characters make points for the playwright — and what she wants to say is that she's a nice person, she really is. Not only do we lose the funny, but the entire play now feels dated — like all those exhortations from liberal columnists during the Bush years to stop feeling superior to Limbaugh's dittoheads and start empathizing with them. Most of the actors are a bit jittery, but Charlotte Booker is out-and-out terrific as Marianne. Dusty is one of a series of Denver Center Theatre Company premieres — many by women — and while I appreciate the attempt at inclusivity, I can't help wishing they'd find stronger scripts. Presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company through February 28, Space Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org.
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 June, Garner Galleria Theatre in the Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org. Reviewed September 18.
Inana. In early 2003, the director of the Iraq Museum in Baghdad, having done all he could to secure the treasures in his care, has fled to this shabby hotel in England with the bride he acquired through an arrangement with her father; Inana is their story. Unfortunately, the script doesn't inspire belief. The plot is hard to swallow and the characters unconvincing. While the protagonist, Darius Shalid, does come across as a learned and dignified lover of antiquities, his relationship with Shali, his wife, is baffling. And Shali is less a person than a pastiche of all the images and ideas we have in this culture about Middle Eastern women: She's a timid creature from a rural village who's afraid to be left alone; she's a smart, spunky girl who put herself in danger by teaching other girls to read; she, personally, was one of the many female victims of the murderous Uday Hussein; she's the metaphorical incarnation of a goddess of both war and sex. It's not that a lot of terrible things didn't happen to women — and, of course, to the entire population — under Saddam Hussein, but what strains credulity is the idea that all these things could have happened to one woman, and that similar suffering would have been visited on just about every other character seen or mentioned in Inana. This production is a world premiere, but the play isn't world-class. Presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company through February 28, Ricketson Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org.
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The Producers. How on earth can Boulder's Dinner Theatre, which does not have hundreds of thousands of dollars at its disposal, compete with the big, glitzy Broadway version of The Producers? Not with tech and design, obviously, nor the slickness of the big showstoppers. But this production has something that's missing from the big touring production: sheer exuberance, an exuberance that in many ways is closer to Mel Brooks's original impulse. The Producers tells the story of a Broadway producer who realized he could make more money from a flop than a hit and immediately sought out the worst script he could find: a tribute to Adolf Hitler. The idea first saw life as a 1968 movie, a movie in which Brooks stuck a fat, garlicky, Jewish thumb right into Hitler's eye. With the irrepressible Wayne Kennedy playing producer Max Bialystock and Scott Beyette as his bewildered but eventually ecstatic sidekick, Leo Bloom, the BDT cast puts the raucous, iconoclastic jump right back into the show. Presented by Boulder's Dinner Theatre through March 7, 5501 Arapahoe Avenue, Boulder, 303-449-6000, www.theatreinboulder.com. Reviewed December 4.
Richard III. The quintessential power-lust story, Richard III is about a man willing to murder his relatives, betray his supporters and shed any amount of blood to acquire the crown of England. What feeling you take away from all this depends largely on how the central figure is played. Andrew Long makes Richard funny, but it's not the sharp-edged funny of Laurence Olivier. His eyes don't pierce; his speech isn't a killing instrument; he's not magnetic, and he doesn't command a room the way Olivier did. This Richard is a bit mush-mouthed, a sort of comic fumbler. Although I have a couple of cavils with this interpretation, it's specific, original and shifts the focus in interesting ways, so that you find yourself listening to lines you've heard a thousand times before, or noticing characters you've always ignored as peripheral. This is a production that keeps fear at arm's length, despite the fact that director Jesse Berger has every gruesome killing committed right in front of our eyes. But there is a deep sadness here, and, surprisingly, you feel it most in the women's lamentation scenes. Jeanne Paulsen makes the ever-cursing Margaret a real woman, twisted by an almost unimaginable rage and grief. As Elizabeth, Kathleen McCall morphs from an anxious but dignified queen to a woman aged and hollowed out by the death of her young sons. Kathleen M. Brady has the complex task of mourning sons whom she knows have committed atrocities, sons she both loves and loathes. It's in these scenes, and the work of these terrific actresses, that the heart of the project lies. Presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company through February 28, Stage Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org. Reviewed February 12.
Smokey Joe's Cafe. On a smart art-deco set in the company's spiffy new building, Shadow Theatre is doing one of the things it does best: music. Smokey Joe's Cafe is a compendium of songs by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller — creators of such 1950s and '60s hits as "Spanish Harlem," "On Broadway," "Yakety Yak," "Love Potion # 9" and "Stand by Me." Artistic director Jeffrey Nickelson plays the affable barkeep, occasionally stepping forward to channel Elvis ("Love Me"), and the talented company is backed by four expert musicians. Some of the songs are presented as we remember them, others the singers transform and make their own — and you really want to hear what Ciarra Teasley does with "Fools Fall in Love" and "Saved." Perhaps surprisingly, the most memorable numbers aren't necessarily the best known. Shahadah James gives a knockout rendition of "Pearl's a Singer," Lynnette Holmes is adorably wicked singing "Don Juan, Your Money's Gone," and when the guys perform the infectiously rhythmic "Keep on Rollin'," everyone in the place wishes they would. All night. This is a smooth, sassy and highly enjoyable evening. Presented by Shadow Theatre Company through March 14, 1468 Dayton Street, Aurora, 720-857-8000, www.shadowtheatre.com.
The Well of the Saints. Mary and Martin Doul, a pair of elderly blind beggars, believe themselves to be attractive and happy together. But when a traveling saint restores their sight with holy water, the miracle turns disastrous: Mary and Martin discover the physical ugliness both of each other and of the muddy landscape. The villagers mock and isolate them. And when they eventually ask to have their blindness returned, their neighbors are enraged and the saint is revealed as a self-righteous prig. Although Martin and Mary have a kind of understanding of each other and a profound bond with the physical world, they are far from warm or admirable characters. So if there's anything resembling redemption in The Well of the Saints, it's in the music of the words and John Millington Synge's obvious love of nature. Ed Baierlein and Sallie Diamond — themselves husband and wife — play the Douls as both pitiable and ridiculous, giving rich, grounded performances that anchor the production. Presented by Germinal Stage Denver through March 8, 2450 West 44th Avenue, 303-455-7108, www.germinalstage.com. Reviewed February 19.