Black Odyssey. Based on Homer's epic, Black Odyssey tells the story of a soldier, Ulysses Lincoln, coming back from a tour of duty in Afghanistan. Like his namesake, he is forced to wander for many years before he can return home, encountering supernatural beings and many strange adventures along the way. But playwright Marcus Gardley has transformed the narrative, using song, myth and metaphor to tell the story of the black experience in the United States, and Ulysses Lincoln's voyage is inward rather than physical. To find his way home, he must internalize and understand his culture and history with all its suffering and joy, and in the process discover who he is. The gods who influence his destiny are as petty, vengeful and unpredictable as the gods of Greek myth, and they also represent his ancestors. Humans and gods intermingle freely, the line between reality and the otherworldly fades, and time collapses in on itself. Throughout the evening, there are references to all kinds of seminal events and figures in African-American history: Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Alice Walker's The Color Purple, the Scottsboro boys and the four little girls murdered in a Birmingham, Alabama, church. The war Ulysses has endured doesn't play much of a role; it's just a peg on which to hang the story, though eventually we do learn about the war memory that haunts him and prevents his return — and it's a disappointingly standard piece of dramaturgy. In general, the wonderful imagination and idiosyncrasy that light up so much of Black Odyssey are missing from the more realistic scenes. But when the play works — which is most of the time — it's a feast, a vivid illustration of the magical power of storytelling and memory. The tech — deceptively simple set; clever, appealing costumes; supple lighting; terrific sound — is exquisite, and the cast is filled with superb actors, many of whom sing and move as expressively as they act. Presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company through February 16, Space Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 203-893-4100, denvercenter.org. Reviewed January 30.
The Legend of Georgia McBride. Matthew Lopez's The Legend of Georgia McBride
makes for a bright, fast, entertaining evening, but there isn't a lot of there there. Casey, an easygoing dreamer, has a wife he adores, Jo, and scrapes out the barest of livings as an Elvis impersonator at a grimy local bar. But Jo reveals she's pregnant, the bar's finances keep sinking and in a desperate, last-ditch move, the owner hires a couple of drag queens. Which means Elvis impersonating Casey is out unless he can pull off a drag act himself. All this could make for a motherlode of richly humanistic revelation, but the play is underwritten and the characters have little contour or dimension. And the plot isn't complex or funny enough to work as farce — although the possibilities for plot complication are rife. How will Jo react when she finds out how her husband has been making his money? How will Christian brother Beau, who's running for this conservative town's school board, deal with the inevitable fallout? Turns out Jo's a pushover and the fallout is entirely evitable. The drag numbers save the show, though. The first act springs to vivid life as Miss Tracy Mills teaches Casey, who's working on Edith Piaf's "Padam Padam," that the key to lip synching is repetition of the words "watermelon motherfucker." There's a terrific number that starts out with "(Not) Getting Married Today" from Steven Sondheim's
and then rips through a medley containing bits of everything from Bernstein's Candideto Styne, Sondheim and Laurents's Gypsy to Rodgers and Hammerstein's South Pacific. The song choices in general are inspired and the drag elements keep getting glitzier, flashier and louder, obscuring the play's deficiencies — until you leave the theater and start thinking about the lost opportunities. Presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company through February 23, Ricketson Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, denvercenter.org. Reviewed January 23.
Orphans. The action of Orphans
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opens on a bleak apartment with worn furniture and stains on the walls. This is the home of a pair of brothers so undeveloped and embryonic that — though both are now fully adult — they still define themselves as orphans: Their father deserted the family when they were little; their mother died. Phillip has mental problems. He twitches, walks with a spidery shamble, endlessly twists his fingers. Older brother Treat has taken on a paternal role that he's utterly incapable of fulfilling. He's alternately violent and clumsily nurturing, providing tuna sandwiches, cuffing and infantilizing Phillip, convincing him that he must never go outside because of an intense allergic reaction he once had as a child. Treat supports this miserable life through theft and violence. One night, Treat brings home a well-dressed drunken businessman named Harold, whom he's selected as an easy mark. He plans to kidnap Harold and demand a ransom. But Harold isn't who he seems to be, and pretty soon he's turned the tables. When he takes control of the household, you're never quite sure whether his intentions are kindly or sinister: He tries to civilize Treat and to broaden Phillip's limited horizons, but it's all in the service of scams that are never fully explained and involve a briefcase full of stocks and bonds. Orphans remain a potent symbol throughout as Harold reveals that he's an orphan, too, and reminisces about the Dead End Kids of the 1930s movies. The play veers skillfully and deliberately between grimy realism and the fluidly fantastical. It has to do with an ever-shifting power balance between the three protagonists as well as the human need for nurturance and recognition. Despite the gritty, menacing tone, Orphans
with its touching ending,could feel a bit like a Hallmark Card if the actors weren't so deeply committed to their work. As it is, you leave the theater feeling both emotionally shaken and quietly satisfied. Presented by the Edge Theatre through February 9, 1560 Teller Street, Lakewood, 303-232-0363, theeproject.org. Reviewed January 23.
The Whipping Man. In 1865, immediately following the defeat of Robert E. Lee at the Battle of Appomattox, the crime of slavery was too recent and the wounds too deep for anything resembling true reconciliation. But almost 150 years later, the time could be right for it. In Matthew Lopez's play, Caleb, a Confederate soldier, crawls into his Virginia home with a gangrened leg, and Simon, a wise, tough old slave still occupying the ruined mansion, performs the amputation that saves Caleb's life. The two men, soon joined by another newly freed slave — the thieving joker, John — are civil with each other, and all three share a deep history. But their differences remain insurmountable. Lopez has hit on a brilliant plot device to explore the play's huge historical shift, however, and also to serve as a telling metaphor: Caleb's family is Jewish, and his father passed the faith on to Simon and John. As the grim aftermath of war unfolds outside and Caleb recovers from surgery, Simon and John contemplate the meaning of their newly acquired freedom. Then Simon realizes it's Passover, and decides to stage a seder. Passover celebrates the release of the Jews from bondage in Israel. Simon, quoting Leviticus, wants to know where he and John stand in the story: Are they Jews to be given a homeland or heathens to be cast out? There's a fair amount of plot to The Whipping Man, some of it too contrived, but the play's profound significance lies less in its plot than in it does in the unanswerable questions it raises. And the charged ambiguity of the final scene, in which some kind of brotherhood will either be asserted or abandoned, is nothing short of brilliant. While this production, a regional premiere, is not quite perfect, it comes close — and the acting is excellent. In particular, Laurence Curry reaches new heights as John, communicating all the dark currents of rage and pain beneath the character's assumed insouciance. Presented by Curious Theatre Company through February 15, 1080 Acoma Street, 303-623-0524, curioustheatre.org. Reviewed January 16.