Ruined. One of the most troubled and lawless places in the world right now is the Democratic Republic of the Congo — and if everyone's life there is hell, Congolese women, raped and mutilated by the thousands, are condemned to the lowest circle. In attempting a play about the plight of these women — several of whom she interviewed in refugee camps — Lynn Nottage faced a couple of obvious problems: how to keep the work from devolving into a polemic, and how to communicate the sheer horror of the situation without losing her entire audience. Still, she's fully succeeded. Ruined, a Pulitzer Prize winner, is neither self-righteous nor demoralizing. It is a richly textured, compassionate, tough-minded evening of theater, filled with characters as life-affirming as they are profoundly and shamefully victimized. Nottage provides redemption at the play's end — a not entirely convincing redemption, given the grimness of the situation, but, because of that same grimness, as artistically satisfying as it is deeply necessary. Presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company through April 30, Ricketson Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org. Reviewed April 7.
Superior Donuts. Set in a doughnut shop in a rundown section of Chicago, Superior Donuts centers on the growing friendship between the defeated and deflated owner, Arthur Przybyszewski, an aging hippie who avoided the draft by fleeing to Canada and still feels guilty about it, and Franco Wicks, a black youngster who comes in looking for a job. There are also a couple of cops — one is a woman interested in Arthur, the other her black partner and a Star Trek fan — as well as the colorful Russian emigre Max Tarasov, who wants to buy the shop to expand his electronics store; a bag lady; and a pair of small-time hoods to whom Franco owes money. Plays about two unlikely people finding and coming to understand each other are the bread and butter of dramaturgy, but why would anyone revive this fading trope now? Superior Donuts is populated by characters who seem to have wandered in from television dramas, and it has a pinkly pulsating, sugar-sweet heart. Despite all this, the first act of this production works — in part because the dialogue is reasonably witty and the plot deficiencies aren't entirely evident yet, in part because Mike Hartman, who plays Arthur, is one of those honest, humorous actors who effortlessly grounds any play he's in. Not only does he do shambling old guy better than anyone else in the world, he's also wonderful at listening and responding to others, which makes for some fine moments between him and an appealing newcomer to Denver named Sheldon Best as Franco. Best does everything that can be done with the role, but I had to struggle to see the character as a real person. Here's a youngster in tune enough with the zeitgeist to come up with all kinds of ways to revive the doughnut shop, from poetry readings to yoga classes. His analysis of Arthur's style of dress is sharp: "The Grateful Dead ain't gonna hire a new guitar player," he observes. But he not only thinks he's written the great American novel — and believes Arthur can help him get it published — he's not savvy enough to have done so on a computer. This means the grubby stack of notebooks he hands to Arthur is his only copy. You really don't need a Weatherman to know which way this wind is blowing. Presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company through May 7, Space Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org. Reviewed April 21.
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Traces. The talented acrobats of Traces aren't dressed, Cirque-style, in masks or feathers; they're not working with artsy, enigmatic, mythical stories or cavorting in fairytale landscapes. They're just a group of folks in dull gray, brown and black street clothes. They share a little information about themselves, though not a lot, and if there's a story here, it's fairly undefined. For the most part, these seem to be kids hanging around on a street corner, dancing, jostling each other, fighting a bit; there's a screen behind them that sometimes flickers with black-and-white images and sometimes shows Chinese characters or drawings of skyscrapers, and the music ranges from pulse-pounding to old songs to soft, Erik Satie-like piano phrases, often produced by the multi-talented cast members themselves. But the real story lies in the acrobatics: someone skimming weightlessly up a pole, then stretching his body out in a true horizontal; actors leaping straight up from the ground and over each other's bodies; Florian Zumkehr doing impossible tricks with an ever-growing pile of chairs; the group at times using skateboards as bats, or making like Fred Astaire with his elegant cane. Presented by Denver Center Attractions through May 11, Stage Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org. Reviewed March 17.