9 Circles. On March 12, 2006, five soldiers stationed at a dangerous traffic checkpoint in an area of Iraq that the military called the Triangle of Death entered the nearby home of a fourteen-year-old girl named Abeer Qasim Hamza. Steven Green, a private, took her parents and six-year-old sister into an adjoining room and shot them while two of his fellow soldiers raped Abeer. Then he went into the room where she was struggling, and raped and shot her. Afterward, the soldiers set Abeer's body on fire. The protagonist of Bill Cain's 9 Circles is called Daniel Reeves, and the plot tracks very closely with Green's known actions and experiences; Sean Scrutchins, a newcomer to the Denver stage, gives a breath-stopping performance as Reeves. The play, loosely shaped by Dante's Inferno, is clear-eyed, tightly written and tough-minded. It is also filled with grace. You are not asked to identify in any shallow or sentimental way with Reeves — only to recognize his humanity as he endures his descent into hell, resisting, jeering, grieving, sometimes even joking, refusing for a long, long time to acknowledge the immensity of what he's done, and encountering on his way lawyers, a priest and the Army counselor to whom he confided his desire to kill everyone and from whom he received in response a bottle of pills and a slip permitting his return to battle. Cain's imagery is spare but telling. Intellect and emotion twin in his exploration of the nature of evil — and ultimately the play implies that at its root, evil is the inability to empathize with others, to feel another's pain. This failure is at the heart of war, as it is at the heart of individual wrongdoing. Presented by Curious Theatre Company through February 18, 1080 Acoma Street, 303-623-0524, www.curioustheatre.org. Reviewed January 19.
The Elephant Man. You couldn't find a more fitting interpreter for Bernard Pomerance's play The Elephant Man than the Physically Handicapped Actors and Musical Artists League. The play tells the story of Joseph Merrick, a man born with hideous deformities: spongy masses of flesh, protuberances of bone, a head far too big for his body, a slobbering gap where his mouth should have been. Abandoned as a child to the Dickensian brutality of a workhouse, he was eventually exhibited widely as a freak. I have seen the play presented as primarily a commentary on the smug blindness of the Victorian era, but in PHAMALY's hands, the focus is on the lonely plight of those excluded from society and the existential pain they feel — a pain with which many of the PHAMALY actors, subjected constantly to the unthinking cruelty of people who flinch away or treat them as less than human — are intimately acquainted. It is Merrick's fate to be cordoned off from the rest of society, but the society from which he's outlawed is far from flawless itself. After being abandoned by the huckster showman exhibiting him, he is rescued by Dr. Frederick Treves, whose motives are decidedly mixed: He wants to help this filthy, suffering and abandoned being, but he also wants to further his own research and reputation. The only one who treats the young man with real human warmth is an actress, Mrs. Kendal. As a professional illusionist herself, Mrs. Kendal understands fully that Merrick's ugly body is only a mask obscuring the creativity and tenderness of his soul, and the two become genuine friends. The story of The Elephant Man is told in a patchwork of scenes, each one captioned like an exhibit at a freak show; the implication is that in a sense, all of the characters — as well as we, the watchers — are freaks. Presented by PHAMALY through February 4, Aurora Fox Arts Center, 9900 East Colfax Avenue, Aurora, 303-739-1970, www.phamaly.org. Reviewed January 19.
Phantom. While playwright Arthur Kopit and composer Maury Yeston were still putting together Phantom, Andrew Lloyd Webber's Phantom of the Opera trundled onto the scene, and their backers vanished — along with any chance of a Broadway opening. This Phantom is much smaller-scale than Webber's, with less spectacle and more emphasis on the agonized humanity of the Phantom himself — though all the Gothic impulses animating Gaston LeRoux's original novel are still present. The plot: Beautiful Christine's beautiful soprano is discovered by the womanizing Count Philippe de Chandon, who secures her a place at the Paris Opera. But the organization has just been taken over by the Cholets, a nasty, scheming couple who have fired faithful long-term manager Carriere and intend to use the opera to showcase the ghastly voice of self-infatuated Carlotta Cholet. Poor Christine ends up in the costume shop rather than on stage, but beneath the imposing gray edifice lurks Erik, with his cohort of writhing lost souls. Music is his only solace, and having once heard Christine sing, he promptly offers her lessons; the first of these gives rise to one of the loveliest and most charming duets of the evening, "You Are Music." Musical-comedy ingenues are usually hard to like — pretty, simpering puppets — but Maggie Sczekan is not of this ilk. She has the kind of rich, expressive voice you want to listen to all night, and all the range and musicality this operatic (or at least operetta-ish) score demands; Markus Warren turns in an equally strong turn as the Phantom. Their performances are supported by clean, professional staging; a cunningly contrived set; elegant costumes; and a group of poised and experienced actors who know when to move into the limelight and when to step back and let the principals have the stage. Presented by Boulder's Dinner Theatre through February 18, 2012, 5501 Arapahoe Avenue, Boulder, 303-449-6000, www.bouldersdinnertheatre.com. Reviewed November 24.
Present Laughter. You obviously can't cast Noel Coward himself as the protagonist in Present Laughter, though he did write the play in the spirit of self-parody. Nor, if you're in Colorado, can you find actors with the plummy English accents his dialogue requires. So you might as well decide to make the evening your own and tart it up with all kinds of absurd and anachronistic tricks. The results at Miners Alley are actually bright, smart and entertaining. At the play's center is Gary Essendine, a famous and self-adoring actor who, despite acting like a petulant child most of the time, is actually a master manipulator. On the eve of a tour in Africa, he has to deal with a couple of seductive women wandering his apartment in silk pajamas and a demented young playwright who lectures him on the frivolity of his work in theater. Orchestrating almost every act of his life is his level-headed ex-wife, Liz, who's still determined to take care of him even though they no longer have the slightest sexual interest in each other. Director Richard H. Pegg sets the action in the 1980s, and doesn't particularly trouble himself with the contradictions this causes. The play's language remains Coward's (for the most part!), and the lifestyle and theater scene it portrays is pure early twentieth century. But predatory temptress Joanna rises from the murk of America's Deep South, and the interpolated last scene simply rips apart the genteel fabric. Ultimately, this mix of style and vulgarity works — both because it's so carefully orchestrated and because Pegg understands exactly when he's paying homage to a venerable tradition and when he's crazily and flat-footedly upending it. Presented by Miners Alley Playhouse through February 12, 1224 Washington Avenue, Golden, 303-935-3044, www.minersalley.com. Reviewed January 12.
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