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 that Casey is out unless he can pull off a drag act himself. All this could make for a mother lode 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? 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.
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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.