Calamity. Written by Stephen Wangh and Suzanne Baxtresser, Calamity brings Calamity Jane back to life, re-creating one of the Wild West shows in which she starred at the turn of the last century. But here Calamity also confronts the present — along with current ideas about just who she was and what her life means — in the person of the entirely contemporary musician she's hired to accompany her. She taunts him with his ignorance of the real West; he shudders when she speaks blithely of shooting Indians. He also tries, with increasing difficulty, to keep her in check. Because this Calamity is an insane and irrepressible handful — a drunken, obscenity- and insult-spewing, self-pitying, sometimes powerfully insightful and sometimes pathetically self-destructive creature. Real-life musician Michael Frayne, a quietly determined performer, rides this show like a cowboy astride a bucking bronco. But no sooner does he get the creature quieted down than it erupts again into ferocious action. As Calamity, Ethelyn Friend fills up the small, cozy venue and explodes it outward with burst after burst of sheer raw energy. She evokes the unpaved main street of Deadwood, where she sometimes wallowed in a drunken stupor, her cheek nestled against the soft mix of mud and horseshit as though against a pillow. Also: her horse, Satan; the gunslinging feats she may or may not have accomplished; the many husbands she may or may not have married; the little girl, Jane, she picked up at some point who was perhaps her flesh-and-blood daughter, perhaps the child of one of her husbands. Every now and then she imparts some genuinely touching or significant piece of information, or permits a glimpse into her soul. The script doesn't really tell you anything about Calamity Jane, the old West or the slipperiness of historical narrative that you didn't already know, but it brings to these concepts a vividness you can only get through art. Presented by Rock N Soul Cafe though November 15 (Thursday, Saturday and Sunday only), 5290 Arapahoe Avenue, Boulder, 303-443-5108, www.rocknsoulcafe.com. Reviewed November 5.
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 20, Garner Galleria Theatre in the Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org. Reviewed September 18, 2008.
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The Woman in Black. A middle-aged man is alone on stage, reciting a paragraph of prose. The stage behind him has an unused, dusty appearance – chairs, a few other bits of furniture. We realize we're in a deserted theater. The man mumbles and hesitates, and then there's an interruption from the audience as a younger man bounds forward and starts giving directions. It turns out the first speaker is Arthur Kipps, who suffered a terrifying experience in his youth that has haunted him ever since. He has written an account of it that he intends to recite to friends and family in the hope of exorcising his demons. Aware that his delivery leaves a lot to be desired, though, he's asked the young man — a professional actor — to help him. They decide that the actor will play Kipps as a young man, while Kipps himself portrays all the other figures in his story. The Woman in Black was adapted by Stephen Mallatratt from a contemporary novel by Susan Hill, her take on the ghost stories that Victorians loved. The language as well as the plot elements here will be familiar to anyone who's read Edgar Allan Poe. No one did Gothic horror better than the Victorians, with their obliterating London fogs, deserted moors and ghost-ridden old houses, and the literate script captures every nuance of the genre. In the end, how scary you find this Halloween offering depends on your willingness to succumb to the sense of dread that keeps creeping toward your heart. Presented by Modern Muse through November 14, the Little Theatre in Margery Reed Hall, University of Denver, 303-780-7836, www.modernmusetheatre.org. Reviewed October 29.