The Catch. Ken Weitzman's play explores the well-worn concept of baseball as a metaphor for America itself, but in new and interesting ways. In the hands of Darryl Love, the boastful, charismatic player at the center of the story, the ball itself becomes a symbol, its seams stitching over the country's flaws: the racism that sidelined talented black players for years, the emphasis on commercialism and the quick deal, the jacked-up greed that brought about the financial meltdown. But this is also a story about fathers: a Japanese-American who was sent to an internment camp during World War II and whose memory his son Michael still seeks to redeem; Sid Zipnik, a Polish Jew who escaped the armies of both Russia and Germany, lost everything, and intends to hold on to the one thing he owns — a crumbling house in Chicago — until his fingers break. The play is set in San Francisco, where Sid is visiting his son, Gary, and the plot is based on fact. In 1998, baseball player Mark McGwire hit a home run, and the ball — caught by a fan — eventually sold for three million dollars. Barry Bonds broke the single-season home-run record three years later and, after a wild scramble, two men ended up claiming his ball. Naturally, legal proceedings followed. Gary, a genuinely original character who combines serious smarts with a delusional nuttiness so impenetrable that it almost rises to greatness, is the first to catch Darryl Love's prized ball. His failed dot-com venture has lost him both his wife and his home, and he's desperate to get them back, along with the respect of emotionally stunted Sid. There are a lot of laughs as the plot unfolds, but there's also a tragedy in the baffled, twisted bond between Gary and Sid. Presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company through February 26, Space Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org. Reviewed February 3.
Circle Mirror Transformation. At a small-town community center, four people are participating in an acting workshop run by Marty, who combines a little knowledge of theater with quite a bit of new-agey yearning. The participants are Marty's husband, one-time hippie James; sexy Theresa, who spent time in New York and has a smidgen of acting experience; good-guy carpenter Schultz; and sullen teenager Lauren. Everything you learn about these people, and pretty much the entire plot of Circle Mirror Transformation, comes from the acting exercises they go through together, though every now and then there's a solitary moment or a fragment of before-class dialogue, usually cut tantalizingly short by the arrival of others. No major drama, nothing climactic, no big resolutions, no straining for significance. Just moments of insight — partial, elliptical — that glimmer into view, then vanish almost before you can take them in, and a conclusion that's pure magic. Under the direction of Christopher Leo, both the technical values and the casting are first-rate. And where has Mark Rubald been all this time? No other actor around can make low-key decency so deeply appealing, and the dynamic between his Schultz and Barbra Andrews's lithe and sharply expressive Theresa is one of the strongest threads in an altogether strong evening. Presented by Curious Theatre Company through February 26, 1080 Acoma Street, 303-623-0524, www.curioustheatre.org. Reviewed January 27.
The Good Body. Having created a full-out exploration of women's relationships with their vaginas in The Vagina Monologues, feminist playwright Eve Ensler has turned her attention to female bodies in general with The Good Body, a compassionate, would-be reassuring look at the the near-universal American neurosis on the subject. The show is watchable, empathetic and way smarter than most girls-night-out stuff; it puts our obsessive physical narcissism into an international context — at least a little. How puny our self-involvement looks, for example, when the protagonist — Eve herself, the script being autobiographical — is offered a share of an elderly African woman's meager lunch and responds, "Oh, I don't eat bread." Ensler interviewed several women for this piece, and their comments provide some of the script's best moments. Helen Gurley Brown herself appears, still exercising obsessively in her eighties, refusing to believe that her husband really finds her attractive. A teenage girl at a fat camp is torn between self-loathing and celebrating the generosity and fullness of her body. A Puerto Rican woman proudly sashays her big butt, but expresses her terror of its eventual spread. Even when she goes overseas, Eve works out; she haunts gyms in Italy and India. But she also notices how differently the women she encounters think about themselves. "Here we live in our bodies," the African woman explains. "They do our work." And in Afghanistan, still under Taliban rule, she is led to a hidden place where women eat vanilla ice cream — a crime for which they could be beaten or even killed. Although the play doesn't bring anything particularly revelatory to a topic that's been explored so thoroughly already, it does serve as a rather touching encomium to the female body. Presented by Avenue Theater through February 26, 417 East 17th Avenue, 303-321-5925, www.avenuetheater.com. Reviewed February 10.
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Hello, Dolly! You're looking for a warm, lively, music-filled, sweetly sentimental holiday season show — but you've had it up to here with Santas and Tiny Tims, as well as not-so-funny take-offs on Santas and Tiny Tims. Say hello to Hello, Dolly!, an old warhorse finding new life at Boulder's Dinner Theatre. The musical tells the story of a meddlesome widow, Dolly Levi, who makes a living connecting people. Ostensibly trying to find a wife for half-millionaire feed-store owner Horace Vandergelder, she's actually plotting to snare him for herself. First, though, she has to not only overcome his doubts, but free herself from the memory of her beloved dead husband, Ephraim. The plot — absurd, episodic, dated in parts — is really only a pretext for songs, dances and comic scenes, but the dialogue still has snap, and the songs are seductive. "It Takes a Woman" is a funny sendup of '50s marital expectations: "It takes a woman all powdered and pink/To joyously clean out the drain in the sink/And it takes an angel with long golden lashes/And soft Dresden fingers for dumping the ashes"; "Put on Your Sunday Clothes" is one of those joyous showstoppers that get your heart racing; "Dancing" starts as a comic dance lesson and ends with a horde of people swirling exhilaratingly across the stage; and "Before the Parade Passes By" is not only exhilarating, but touching, too. It's hard to imagine a more perfect Dolly than Alicia Dunfee, who imbues the role with warmth and charm, sings movingly, and brings depth and dignity to her soliloquies with her dead husband. Another terrific performance comes from Tracy Warren, who has a pure, beautifully modulated singing voice and loads of appeal as hatmaker Irene Malloy. The direction and choreography (the latter by Dunfee and Matthew D. Peters) are clean and tight. They meld together the disparate levels of talent on stage and give the performers a solid base from which to cut loose and enjoy themselves. Which they do — filling us with pleasure in the process. Presented by Boulder's Dinner Theatre through February 26, 5501 Arapahoe Avenue, Boulder, 303-449-6000, www.bouldersdinnertheatre.com. Reviewed December 2.
Kafka on Ice. This play interweaves Franz Kafka's biography with the plot of his best-known work, The Metamorphosis, in which the protagonist wakes one morning to find he has become a large bug. It uses bare-bones staging, puppets, the transformative use of objects, and a large sheet of artificial ice — on which all the characters, excepting Kafka himself, skate. The beetle takes many forms, from an elongated shadow to an actor in a big, huggy felt costume; in one frenetic scene, it morphs from a hand puppet into a plastic, remote-controlled toy that skitters frantically around the stage. There's a brilliant mix of genres and parodies as well, from a flirty, meet-cute, silent-movie-style ice-skating scene to a high-stepping parody of the Yiddish theater the author attended with a friend. The script explores Kafka's profound sadness, and also the many permutations his work and reputation went through in the years following his death — including this production itself. It's as sad as it is deeply funny. Presented by Buntport Theatre Company through February 19, 717 Lipan Street, 720-946-1388, www.buntport.com. Reviewed February 3.
Map of Heaven. Playwright Michele Lowe writes well about art, and the central character in her Map of Heaven is an artist, Lena, whose paintings are maps of imaginary places and who is about to have her first big show. As the play opens, she's in her studio with longtime dealer and gallery owner Rebecca, discussing which pieces to display. But while Lena's career is on the upswing, her radiologist husband is tiring of his profession. Once so dedicated that he moved heaven and earth to open a clinic for poor women, he's now spending less and less time at his work and more and more time flying — an occupation for which he's developed a passion — and he's hoping that Lena will find a level of recognition that allows him to quit being a doctor. Ian's sister, Jen, is also on a downward trajectory professionally. She's waitressing for a living, despite having once been a lawyer. The first major twist in the action is a little hard to swallow, and the second really strains faith; the characters begin feeling less like people and more like ciphers pressed into the service of a less-than-plausible plot. Still, under the direction of Evan Cabnet, the acting and the production values are so good that you almost believe. Presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company through February 26, Ricketson Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org. Reviewed January 27.