Clybourne Park. Racism persists, but the ways in which we feel and express racism change with the times. Bruce Norris's brilliant Clybourne Park was inspired by Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun, at the end of which the Youngers, a struggling black family, are about to move into a white neighborhood. Norris has imagined the inhabitants of the house they will move into, Russ and Bev. These people, who have a black maid, Francine, are the product of their times, completely unaware of their own prejudices. Karl, a neighbor — and the only holdover character from Raisin — arrives with his deaf wife, Betsy, to try and talk them out of selling to the Youngers. Turns out, there is a tragic reason why they are selling the house so cheaply: Their son committed atrocities against civilians while fighting in Korea, and eventually killed himself in the home. The second act takes place in 2009, when the neighborhood is primarily black, and Steve and Lindsey, a white couple, are about to move into 406 Clybourne Street, ambitious architectural plans in hand. Along with their lawyer, they're in discussions with Lena and Kevin, a professional black couple who represent the neighborhood committee. These two are concerned about maintaining the area's historical integrity, and perhaps less than thrilled about having white neighbors. Norris has not only provided some of the most charged, funny and thought-provoking dialogue imaginable, he has also found very different dramaturgical styles for the two eras represented in his play. Act one feels like a '50s drawing room comedy, or perhaps an episode of All in the Family, with Bev as a less insightful Edith Bunker. Act two is completely different: more overtly satiric, with swifter, often broken dialogue. Everyone's a liberal now. Everyone shops at Whole Foods. And all these characters are hyper-aware of race and step so gingerly around it that they're barely able to communicate at all. It's no surprise when racist venom breaks dangerously through. The Denver premiere of this Pulitzer-winning play is stunning, both in terms of tech and of the performances. Presented by Curious Theatre Company through October 15, 1080 Acoma Street, 303-623-0524, www.curioustheatre.org. Reviewed September 15.
My Hideous Progeny. When Mary Shelley — poet, essayist, novelist and, most famously, the creator of Frankenstein — lost one of the four babies she conceived with poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (only one child ultimately survived), he placed her in a tub of ice water to stop the hemorrhaging that threatened her life. This provides the central image for My Hideous Progeny, a meditation on life, art, creativity and those determined outsiders and occasional exiles, the Romantic poets Shelley and Byron. The inspiration for Frankenstein was a parlor game during which Lord Byron challenged all the participants to write a ghost story. John Polidori, another writer who was also present, supposedly took up an eventually abandoned idea of Byron's and turned it into "The Vampyre," the first vampire story published in English. While we've come to expect some humor from Buntport Theater Company, My Hideous Progeny is very serious. Quoting from letters and journals, the play gives us Mary Shelley's feverish thoughts, along with her husband's sleepwalking and laudanum-inspired delirium. There are dreams, symbols and meditations on art and creativity. None of the five actors reveals those spiky and specific personalities we're accustomed to at Buntport, and though this shows admirable restraint, it also means that the only character who's at all interesting is Byron. Evan Weissman plays him as a conceited fool, providing a few moments of humor. Despite all the lyrical talk, My Hideous Progeny gives us the Romantic poets' narcissism without the poetry, while also withholding the creepy pleasures of a good ghost story. Presented by Buntport Theater Company through October 22, 717 Lipan Street, 720-946-1388, www.buntport.com. Reviewed October 6.
Parlour Song. At the beginning of Parlour Song, demolitions expert Ned is showing videos of his work to his neighbor, Dale, owner of a car wash. Dale is polite but uninterested; he's seen them many times before, though Ned seems to have forgotten showing them to him. But for the audience, the videos are fascinating: the balance between control and destruction, the way a building leans almost reluctantly into itself, slowly hollowing before exploding in a slow, beautiful, meditative ballet. This is also a fitting representation of what is happening within Ned's marriage to restless, indifferent Joy, and, in fact, to his entire life. Objects are disappearing from Joy and Ned's house, and Ned is trying to do everything he can think of to keep his wife. He enlists the help of Dale in an effort to lose weight. In one of the evening's funniest scenes, he listens to a sex-advice tape, learning how to deploy his tongue during oral sex. In most disintegrating-in-suburbia fiction, the protagonists dull their pain with sleeping pills and anti-depressants. Ned can't do that: His demolition contract requires that he never take drugs. So when Joy discovers pills, they turn out to be — pathetically — the Rogaine he's purchased to save his hair. There's a persistent undertone of menace that makes comparisons to Pinter inevitable, and a persistent sense of deracination, instability, change and the loss and deterioration caused by time's passing. Although this production is oddly uninvolving, it's still worth seeing because Butterworth's dialogue is so fiercely funny, and because it stars three of the best actors in the area. Presented by Paragon Theatre through October 29, 1387 South Santa Fe Drive, 303-914-6458, www.paragontheatre.org. Reviewed October 6.
Ragtime. As a musical, Ragtime inevitably lacks the complexity — as well as the violence and darkness — of E.L. Doctorow's wonderful novel, but it still has a thousand times more intelligence, charm and integrity than the average musical. As written by Terrence McNally, with music by Stephen Flaherty and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, the show is representational in style, with various members of the large cast coming forward in turn to narrate the story of the early twentieth century — and their own parts in it. The effect is panoramic, a living tapestry across which move characters both fictional and historic. A cascade of ragtime-inflected music powerfully illustrates the primary themes, which have to do with the divide between black and white in America, and the way the lives of all kinds of people bump up against each other in that vital, unwieldy phenomenon of the American melting pot. Ragtime tells the story of three families: a wealthy New Rochelle household, a Latvian immigrant and his little daughter, jazz musician Coalhouse Walker and his beloved Sarah, as well as their baby. Historical figures appear throughout: Emma Goldman; showgirl Evelyn Nesbit, who pops up to sing about the murder of her lover, architect Stanford White, by her husband — because what's an American story without a sensational murder? We also meet Henry Ford, the man who revolutionized the life of American workers; J.P. Morgan, forerunner of today's Wall Street profiteers; and Houdini, a magician who longs for a sign that magic is real. Latvian Tateh is fictional, but the formative influence of Eastern European Jews on Hollywood is definitely not. The most interesting and deeply imagined character is Walker, with his jaunty pride and willed blindness to racism, his dignity in the face of insult and then his violent radicalization. Among the many compelling performances and strong voices, Tyrone Robinson, tall and imposing, cocky and vulnerable, commands the stage. Presented at the Lone Tree Arts Center through October 16, 10075 Commons Street, Lone Tree, 720-509-1000, www.lonetreeartscenter.org. Reviewed September 29.