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 27, Garner Galleria Theatre in the Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org. Reviewed September 18, 2008.
Jugged Rabbit Stew. For this original musical, the Buntport Theater crew took an absurd idea and then — instead of playing around a bit, giggling and letting it go — decided to carry it forward, step by step, to the logical and intensely illogical ending. Under the sunnily innocent surface of Jugged Rabbit Stew is a darker underlay, an underlay involving blood, dismemberment, the way humanity destroys its gods, predation and carnivorousness — which takes on a whole new dimension when the meat in question not only walks and talks like a man, but can perform astounding feats of magic. All of this is pounded home by Adam Stone's inspired rock songs. The plot concerns Snowball, a giant rabbit who works with a magician called Alec the Amazing and All-Powerful. At his best, Alec can pull off only the simplest sleights of hand; Snowball is the genuine magical power behind the act. This bunny is anything but sweet and fluffy, however. He's a miserable, scruffy creature who likes making others unhappy. He steals. He has confiscated the legs of magician's assistant Mystical Marla, replacing them with those of a middle-aged workman. He took away Alec's right arm. He also kidnapped Woman, a regular audience member he loved until he spotted her in the company of another rabbit. The production underlines its own artificiality, satirizing magic shows and theatrical conventions in general and examining the ways we use language to create story and propel action, with Woman at one point discussing with Snowball whether he's the classical noble-but-with-a-fatal-flaw tragic hero, the moody, romantic Byronic hero, or a twentieth-century anti-hero. One of the deepest, weirdest, funniest and most assured shows Buntport has ever done. Presented by Buntport Theater through June 19, 717 Lipan Street, 720-946-1388, www.buntport.com. Reviewed May 20.
Mouse in a Jar. George Orwell once said, "If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever," and that pretty much captures the tone of Mouse in a Jar, an unrelenting chronicle of violence and suffering. Orwell was talking about totalitarianism, and the play, with its Polish immigrant protagonist, Ma, does make a bow in that direction: The faceless abuser, Him, is both a merciless husband and a metaphor for the terror inflicted by the torturers of any of the world's dictators, from Augusto Pinochet to Saddam Hussein — particularly since he's represented on stage only by sharp light and an ugly sound. But for the most part, the focus is on domestic violence and its fractured and not always predictable after-effects. We begin with two girls talking as Ma stirs food in a pan; you can hear the sizzle. Ma appears dazed and mesmerized. We learn that the girls are sisters, and every night their father comes home to rape and torment Ma. They want to persuade her to run away, taking them. Eventually, one of the sisters, Zosia, disappears. The second daughter, Daga, is bound to her mother by bonds of love, pity and contempt, and she enlists a young man, here called only Boy, in an attempt at rescue. We realize that Ma will not and does not want to leave her abuser; Daga's manipulations of both her mother and Boy are cruel — but then, Boy is a manipulator, too. Mouse in a Jar is by a young and talented Polish-American playwright named Martyna Majok; some parts are amazingly effective, and a lot of the language is quite wonderful. But there's also often a sense of a writer reaching too hard for meaning and tragedy. The scenes that speak most eloquently reveal Ma as not a symbol or generalization, but as a very specific woman, twisted by suffering, simultaneously loving her daughters and unable to love them, a woman whose utterances often contain an odd, hardened-in-flame humor. Presented by the LIDA Project through May 29, BINDERY | space, 2180 Stout Street, 720-221-3821, www.lida.org. Reviewed May 6.
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The Sound of a Voice.Rich in silence, sparing of words — though the words that come are sometimes unexpectedly ordinary, given the hushed and mysterious setting — The Sound of a Voice is based on Japanese folklore. It is on one level an exploration of human love and loneliness, as a warrior comes to kill the hermit whom locals have stigmatized as a witch, stays at her home and interacts with her in nine brief, ambiguous and evocative scenes. Every night, Man's sleep is troubled by strange sounds and the haunting music of a shakuhachi, a kind of flute. Scene by scene, the protagonists explore the possibility of love, sparring (literally, at one point), talking, retreating, even joking a little, scrubbing together at a persistent stain on the floor, Man periodically preparing to leave while Woman begs for his continued company. Objects take on intense significance, most particularly the perennially fresh and glowing flowers that Woman tends with grace and passion and that Man fears contain the trapped souls of travelers who came before him. Though Woman insists she is not a witch, it's clear that supernatural forces are at work, though they may be intended by playwright David Henry Hwang as metaphors for the universal uncertainties of love. "I create a world which is outside the realm of what you know," Woman tells Man. Michael Andrew Doherty lends his meditative musicality on the shakuhachi, and dancers Kim Robards and Gregory Gonzales perform between scenes, adding resonance and depth. The actors' approach hovers somewhere between realistic and kabuki-stylized; both tamp down their emotions until they simply become too strong to contain. Presented by Paragon Theatre through June 5, 1387 South Santa Fe Drive, 303-914-6458, www.paragontheatre.org. Reviewed May 13.
Up. In 1982, an ordinary working guy named Larry Walters, obsessed with fantasies of flight, tied helium balloons to a lawn chair, equipped himself with water bottles for ballast, beer and sandwiches, and a pellet gun to deflate the balloons as needed for descent. Walters expected to float perhaps thirty feet into the air, but instead ascended 16,000 feet at breathtaking speed. Playwright Bridget Carpenter deals with the aftermath of his adventure, stressing the dreariness and smallness of everyday life as her hero, here named Walter Griffin, refuses to get a job and fights to keep his dream of invention alive, while his son, Mikey, flounders in high school and Helen, his wife, supports the family through the trudging work of a mail carrier. The famed tightrope walk of Philippe Petit between the Twin Towers serves as a metaphoric link, and Petit periodically appears, walking a light-illuminated, simulated tightrope above the stage, to encourage Griffin in his dreams of flight. Despite some interesting interweaving of themes, almost everything in the script is deployed too narrowly in the service of the central idea, which means the characters never come alive or really surprise you. Presented by Curious Theatre Company through June 18, 1080 Acoma Street, 303-623-0524, www.curioustheatre.org. Reviewed May 20.