Ma Rainey's Black Bottom. First produced in 1984, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is the play that propelled August Wilson to fame, and it has everything that makes the playwright great: eruptions of humor, rage, pettiness and affection, all given resonance by a broadly humanistic sense of history and context. The action takes place in 1920s Chicago, where Ma Rainey, mother of the blues, is about to record her signature song. Her four backup musicians gather at the studio to bicker, joke and rehearse. Wilson illuminates the world of these blues musicians and their struggles within a white culture that values their artistry but not their personhood, but there is nothing didactic about his perspective. Swathed in fur, refusing to perform until she receives her ritual Coca-Cola, Ma Rainey is as petulant a diva as you can imagine. We soon realize that terrorizing her manager is pretty much the only real power she has: Despite her stardom, she can't even get a taxi outside the studio. The script has a discursive, slice-of-life feeling, as if we were simply watching people interact; the focus, as always with Wilson, is on language and storytelling. Though there's less of the playful music-for-music's-sake noodling around here than in the later plays, and almost none of the quasi-mystical or crazed philosopher stuff that makes some Wilson works sink right into your psyche and re-arrange your thought patterns, the play is transformative. Presented by Shadow Theatre Company through October 17, 1468 Dayton Street, Aurora, 720-857-8000, www.shadowtheatre.com. Reviewed September 10.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. For the kids who compete in them, spelling bees are a very big deal. They represent an arena where poor kids, rural kids and the kids of immigrants can find identity and pride; winning requires discipline, stamina, nerves and a profound attention to detail. But bees are also utterly trivial. They're not even good predictors of intellect. Being a terrific speller may correlate with serious intellectual or creative power, but it usually doesn't. The authors of this quirky musical are aware of both the importance of bees and their essential silliness. Putnam County provides lots of laugh-out-loud moments; a few silly, slightly dirty puns; and a group of kid characters we can care about. Presented by Boulder's Dinner Theatre through November 7, 5501 Arapahoe Avenue, Boulder, 303-449-6000, www.bouldersdinnertheatre.com. Reviewed October 1.
The Voysey Inheritance. When he wrote The Voysey Inheritance over a hundred years ago, Harley Granville-Barker intended to show the rot beneath the politely conventional exterior of Edwardian society. The plot concerns a solicitor who uses his clients' funds to enrich himself and his family while managing to keep up with interest payments and avoid suspicion. In short, he's running a Ponzi scheme worthy of Bernie Madoff. Only a few years before the current financial collapse, David Mamet — whose own plays often feature both financial matters and groups of people behaving badly — rescued this work from semi-oblivion and tightened it. Despite his ministrations, The Voysey Inheritance still makes for a very wordy evening. And this production lacks the specificity and precision that might help make it shine. Presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company through October 24, Space Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org. Reviewed October 8.
Yankee Tavern. Adam, a young man working in what used to be his father's bar, is arguing with his fiancée, Janet, because the names he provided for her save-the-date notices were fictitious, and she's furious. Adam's father committed suicide in this ghostly place — or rather, we think it was suicide, because nothing in Steven Dietz's Yankee Tavern is for sure. The bar is situated on the ground floor of a hotel peopled with ghosts. And also one live guest: crazy Ray, a conspiracy theorist who carries a moon rock in his pocket, hates Starbucks and believes that the government was complicit in the events of 9/11. Adam, under the guidance of a professor with whom he may or may not have had an affair, wrote a doctoral thesis debunking this idea. And then there's the silent man at the end of the bar who has ordered two Rolling Rocks — one for himself, one for the invisible companion who died on 9/11. This man appears to have inside knowledge, and he's a lot more worrisome than garrulous Ray. Pretty soon the bar is filled with a murky sense of menace, and we seem to be engrossed in a tense, brilliantly plotted noir thriller. Except that it isn't. You just can't make all the odd comments and events of Yankee Tavern cohere into a narrative. Dietz has undercut Ray's mind games only to reveal that the entire damn play is his own mind game. Adam, Janet, Ray and Palmer aren't real people; they're figures on a shape-changing Alice in Wonderland chessboard. This kind of nonsensical sense makes for a somewhat dizzying evening, but in the end, a game is still just a game, and you leave the theater feeling as if you've crammed yourself with air. Presented by Curious Theatre through October 24, 1080 Acoma, 303-623-0524, www.curioustheatre.org.
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