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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.

Becky's New Car. Playwright Steve Dietz's dialogue tends to be smart and his imagination fresh. He likes to come up with intricate plot twists, bend theatrical form and refuse the audience a satisfyingly tied-up ending. Becky's New Car is a light work, with a plot that comes close to conventional and just a couple of those dizzying, absurdist Dietzian moments. Becky's life is straightforward and painfully ordinary. She lives with her roofer husband, Joe, and college-student son, Chris, and works far too many hours at a car dealership. In one of the play's most charming conceits, she invites the audience into her reality. She gives them tasks: collate some of her papers, help her get dressed to go out — oh, and would anyone like a soda? The interaction with the audience is unpretentious, friendly and low-key. Hyper-wealthy Walter arrives one evening just as Becky is about to leave work, wanting to buy nine expensive new cars as gifts for his employees. He's newly widowed and a little adrift, and he promptly falls for Becky — who he assumes is widowed, too. After trying once or twice to disabuse him of the notion, she gives in to his fantasy. And so begins her attempt to live two lives. But once he's introduced all these interesting people, the playwright himself seems to lose interest, and the characterizations go south along with the plotting. As the writing weakens, some of the actors respond with broader, less subtle performances. Overall, the play is fun to watch, but it doesn't particularly resonate once you've left the theater. Presented by Vintage Theatre through February 19, 2119 East 17th Avenue, 303-839-1361, www.vintagetheatre.com. Reviewed January 26.

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. This Phantom is much smaller-scale than Webber's, with less spectacle and more emphasis on the agonized humanity of the Phantom himself. 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 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 score demands; Markus Warren turns in an equally strong turn as the Phantom. Presented by Boulder's Dinner Theatre through February 18, 5501 Arapahoe Avenue, Boulder, 303-449-6000, www.bouldersdinnertheatre.com . Reviewed November 24.

Present Laughter. You obviously can't cast Noël 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 around 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 upending it. Presented by Miners Alley Playhouse through February 12, 1224 Washington Avenue, Golden, 303-935-3044, www.minersalley.com. Reviewed January 12.

Two Things You Don't Talk About at Dinner. Playwright Lisa Loomer has waded into the tumultuous waters of the Israel/Palestine conflict. She does it with humor — note the title — setting her play at the seder of a Zionist hostess, Myriam, and placing among the guests Sam, a Palestinian and one of Myriam's oldest friends. Sam knows the score. For a long, long time, he remains affable and generally silent — as he has in Myriam's presence for many years. But Sam has just returned from a mind-shattering trip to the Middle East, and in the second act, he speaks out. He does more. He shows photographs, including one of a Palestinian child killed by an Israeli soldier. Myriam passionately defends Israeli actions. The entire tone changes. Two Things brings in an array of other issues, both trivial and profound, and manages to touch on just about every current national neurosis. Myriam's eclectic guest list includes a bulimic girl, a disenchanted young Buddhist, a Japanese-American who converted for the sake of her Jewish American husband, a nit-picky control freak married to an alcoholic, an evangelical work colleague of Myriam's convinced that her hostess is going to hell. There's wit and insight here, but none of the characters except Sam have much depth; you don't feel any sense of warmth and familiarity among them. In addition, a lot of the dialogue sounds cliched and Hollywoodish. The second act is much stronger than the first, however, and the play builds to a touching and believable ending. Presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company through February 19, Space Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org. Reviewed February 2.

The Whale. It takes guts and ingenuity to write a play in which the protagonist is a morbidly obese man, constantly on stage and essentially tethered in one place. Charlie is dying of his own weight. He sleeps on the sofa — propped up so he can breathe — and spends almost the entire day there. This static setup means that most of the action is psychological, emotional, metaphorical. Charlie does maintain one significant link to the outside world: He teaches composition courses online, urging bored students to be honest and expressive in their writing. He is visited daily by an old friend, Liz, a nurse, who takes care of him and constantly begs him to go to a hospital and make some attempt to save his own life. Another visitor is a nineteen-year-old Mormon, Elder Thomas, who knocks at the door and becomes determined to rescue Charlie's soul. What's left of Charlie's vitality is focused on a single goal: a rapprochement with his teenage daughter, Ellie. He had left her and her mother many years earlier after falling in love with another man, Alan, who has since died. This is no easy task. The girl is vengeful toward the world in general and filled with contempt for the huge, wallowing father who deserted her. Director Hal Brooks has cast this complex, literate and multi-layered play well, and the production makes it clear that beneath the surprising, irreverent, funny and despairing dialogue, there's a profound tenderness. Presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company through February 19, Ricketson Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org. Reviewed January 26.