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Animal Crackers. Animal Crackers is a romp, a trifle — full of puns, malapropisms and visual jokes, and utterly, unabashedly silly. The plot is just an excuse for the crazy brothers, nominally playing actual characters, to visit a Long Island mansion and pull off a series of stunts. There are elements familiar from Marx Brothers movies: a palatial home; an impassive butler; a majestic grande dame who's continually hoodwinked but, despite this, never fazed; two pairs of young lovers who encounter obstacles and misunderstandings. We also get a great explorer returned from Africa. The plot — what there is of it — focuses on a valuable painting that the grande dame, Mrs. Rittenhouse, is showing off for guests; it's stolen and re-stolen for purposes either nefarious or tender-hearted. We recognize the Marx Brothers, though they have different names. That explorer, Captain Jeffrey T. Spaulding, is Groucho, complete with jet-black mustache and cigar. Emanuel Ravelli, the one in the odd-shaped hat with a broad fake Italian accent who can play a mean, tricky piano, is Chico. Harpo, aka The Professor, is the silent brother whose movements, facial expressions and sudden toots on a horn say everything that needs to be said. Zeppo's around, too, moving in and out of various characters. Few in the audience were around when the Marx Brothers first made their mark; most know the performers through reruns or later homages to their work. But everyone, young or old, laughed uproariously throughout. Presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company through May 11, Stage Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, Reviewed April 17.

The Road to Mecca. Athol Fugard's The Road to Mecca explores the huge and unanswerable questions: questions about age, death, love and trust, the meaning of home and the significance of art — how creativity animates our lives, what happens when creativity's lost. It does this through the lives of three lonely and uncertain people. The character of Miss Helen is based on the life of eccentric outsider artist Helen Martins, who returned in the 1930s after a long absence to the small village where she was born, in an arid region of South Africa called the Great Karoo. Bitterly lonely at first, she discovered her calling as an artist and began decorating her house with crushed colored glass and filling her garden with cement statues of owls, camels, sphinxes, mermaids, peacocks and wise men, all oriented toward the east, where she imagined Mecca as a great and wondrous city. The rigidly pious people of Nieu Bethesda were appalled by her work. We learn early on that Helen is resisting the efforts of the local pastor, Marius Byleveld, to get her moved from her crazily decorated house to a placid facility for the elderly. But she also has a deep and enduring friendship with Elsa Barlow, a dynamic and idealistic young schoolteacher. When Elsa stumbles through Helen's door after a long drive to see her friend, the action begins. Elsa is appalled by Marius's plans for Helen; Helen is shaken by Elsa's strange mood, her apparently unfounded touchiness and flashes of anger. Their rich, drawn-out and patiently limned encounter, with its odd stops and starts, is at the heart of the play. Then Marius visits, and he comes to dominate much of the second act. He's not exactly the man we expected from the women's descriptions. Sure, he's religious and conventional, but he genuinely cares for Helen and wants to protect her. The battle for Helen's soul goes on a little too long, but eventually all the elements come together for an ending that balances perfectly between hope and despair. Presented by Miners Alley Playhouse through May 4, 1224 Washington Avenue, Golden, 303-935-3044,


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