99 Histories. In Julia Cho's 99 Histories, a young woman returns to her Korean mother's house. She is pregnant, alone, unsure what to do next. A onetime musical prodigy who stopped playing the violin when she was diagnosed with a never-fully-defined mental illness, she has broken up with Joe, the man who loves her and, given the illness she carries, fears for her unborn baby's future. This is a small, slight, dreamlike play, full of ghosts and memories; the strongest focus is on the intense and troubled relationship between mother Sah-Jin and daughter Eunice — a relationship that leaves many things unspoken. Memory is treacherous. In one sequence we see a young American soldier taking piano lessons from a white-clad Korean woman, and for a few moments you think you're watching the story of Sah-Jin's long-ago courtship. But this woman turns out to be someone else entirely. A family friend, says Sah-Jin, except this isn't true, either. Then there's the puzzling scar on Sah-Jin's neck that Eunice saw as a magical star when she was a child but eventually comes to realize resulted from a tracheotomy. This play feels like an early work. The names of famous pieces of literature keep arising: Eunice periodically mentions the stubborn mysterious silence of Melville's Bartleby the Scrivener. And as she pens journal entries addressed to her unborn child, she thinks again and again of Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet — which, truthfully, feels pretty grandiose. As do the descriptions of Eunice's astounding talents as a young violinist. Wouldn't promising, even brilliantly promising, have been sufficient? But then every character in this talky play takes him or herself with great seriousness, and every piece of action is presented with unyielding earnestness and a cloak of sometimes effective, sometimes clunky poeticism. Although 99 Histories is an imperfect script, by the end Cho does attain what she's been reaching for all along: a sense of the continuity of love and history, a reconciliation between past and present, the living and the dead. Presented by Theatre Esprit Asia through November 16, Vintage Theatre, 1468 Dayton Street, Aurora, 303-856-7830, theatre-esprit-asia.org. Reviewed October 31.
The Most Deserving. The characters in Catherine Trieschmann's The Most Deserving are members of the arts council in Ellis County, Kansas. They have $20,000 to award to a deserving artist, but there aren't that many artists around, and anyway, they're having trouble deciding just what constitutes "deserving." Everyone has a motive for supporting his or her candidate, and those motives are fueled more by pragmatism, hatred, lust or petty score-settling than by aesthetic appreciation. Council head Jolene is concerned with the group's finances, which means finding an artist that their strongest supporter on city council will endorse: his son, for example. Dwayne, a broke car mechanic, could use the $20,000 and convinces himself to apply, arguing that his portraits of vice presidents are genuine art. Ted, Jolene's husband, is an Englishman who grew up in London but can't name a single painting in the National Gallery. We're never quite sure where Edie stands, and it doesn't help that her drinking periodically fuddles her brain. Only Liz Chang, an assistant art professor at the community college, appears to be a real advocate for art, and she's championing African-American outsider artist Everett Whiteside, who makes sculptures out of trash. Trieschmann's How the World Began played in Boulder a year or two back and proved she could write intelligent, thoughtful dialogue. Here she proves she can write funny — original, sudden-gusts-of-surprised-laughter funny, with a bedroom scene more hilarious than in any French farce. Presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company through November 17, Ricketson Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, denvercenter.org. Reviewed October 24.
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Rancho Mirage. The dialogue in Rancho Mirage is swift and clever and the characters are vivid, if not particularly deep or likable. But while the trials and tribulations of the three couples involved are standard-issue — infidelity, money problems — they're presented in ways that are completely, off-the-map absurd. We start off in the expensively furnished, gated-community home of Nick and Diane and learn that they're bankrupt: Nick, an architect, has had no work for some time now. Trevor and Louise, who soon arrive, are having marital problems. Charlie and Pam harbor shifting and conflicting ideas about having children. So there are big issues, including who will take care of whose children if tragedy strikes, and also idiotic little ones, like why teenage Julie is babysitting for Trevor and Louise and neglecting Nick and Diane — who, Diane passionately asserts, have dibs on the girl's services. Even the dopey arguments mask deeper grievances and griefs; there's a lot these people don't tell each other, and many things aren't at all the way they're discussed and remembered. So it seems we're in for a black-hearted comic farce: Clearly these people will end up tearing each other apart, and that should be fun to watch, even if the warring-couples device isn't particularly original. But the second act is tinged with real sadness even as the plot twists remain ridiculous, and the characters become less cartoonish. Playwright Steven Dietz is a cunning plotter, and the structure of Rancho Mirageto some extent explains its emotional effect. In act one, you have a centrifugal movement. But instead of proceeding to the logical endgame in the second act — hysterical sobbing, crazed recriminations, someone brandishing a knife or gun — Dietz simply changes the direction of his spinning. Now the currents are centripetal, a return to a center of doubtless temporary but still touching gentleness and peace and an ending as satisfying as sweet cream. Presented by Curious Theatre Company through December 7, 1080 Acoma Street, 303-623-0524, curioustheatre.org. Reviewed November 7.