Best Theater Company to Pop Up in Unexpected Places

Audacious Theatre

Whether putting on a show inside a music venue, a brewery, a pizzeria or the basement of an old Denver mansion, Audacious Theatre is the master of transforming a space. This small, local immersive company has a knack for creating ambience with a just a few yards of fabric and some simple lighting tricks. It converted the Parkside Mansion into a murderous dungeon for an original production, Lady Killers, and was able to perfectly capture the sleaze of a '70s pick-up bar for its own version of David Mamet's Sexual Perversity in Chicago. For Audacious, immersive also means highly interactive, as artistic director Ren Manley and company break the fourth wall by inviting audience members to perform karaoke, throw darts at pictures of ex-lovers and beat the crap out of piñatas.

There are decent dinner-theater offerings throughout the area, but nothing as tasty as the evenings hosted by BDT Stage, previously Boulder's Dinner Theatre. For starters, the food is several cuts above most dinner-theater fare — we found housemade burrata on the menu last time we visited — and artistic director Michael J. Duran always casts reliably talented performers who know how to carry a tune. And then some, as in the case of Always...Patsy Cline, currently playing through May 20. Fall brings the updated I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change. And we know that you're sick of Disney's The Little Mermaid by now, but we're betting your three-year-old isn't, so plan on under-the-sea enchantment and a happy toddler this summer.

M. Gale Photography

Three plays in rotation, all completely different from each other: a crazy comic version of Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility in which the flying, sliding, hopping furniture is almost a character in its own right; a magic realism piece centered on a sick child called The Electric Baby; and a powerful production of Arthur Miller's tragic All My Sons, about a man haunted by a crime he committed during World War II that led to the deaths of several young pilots. The Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities has brought back the concept of repertory with its Black Box Theatre, and one of the pleasures of attending all three well-staged productions is seeing the versatility of some of the area's finest actors in a variety of roles. The plays are shown in rotation through the first week of May, but we can expect another worthy round next year.

The Miners Alley auditorium is one of the most pleasant in the area. Even better is the lounge, where you'll find a full bar called Lillie's Saloon that's open for an hour before showtime. Yes, you can carry your drink into the theater — and you'll also have a chance to mingle with the actors in the lounge afterward. It doesn't hurt that under the direction of Len Matheo, the company is doing a very interesting mix of contemporary and traditional work these days. We're particularly intrigued by Aaron Posner's District Merchants, a sharp and humorous take on The Merchant of Venice, running from May 18 to June 24. Remember: free beer and wine on opening night.

Courtesy Benchmark Theatre Facebook page

As the first offering in its new and permanent space in Lakewood (first pioneered by Edge), Benchmark presented A Kid Like Jake, a thoughtful and well-executed play about a four-year-old who loves princesses and wants to dress as Snow White for Halloween, and the efforts of his worried parents to get him into a first-rate preschool. The rest of this inaugural season will introduce local audiences to interesting and critically acclaimed works that are still relatively unknown here, along with a new play by local author Jeffrey Neuman. And then there's the second annual Fever Dream Festival, a "celebration of science fiction, fantasy and horror featuring new and original works." Helmed by actors Haley Johnson and Rachel Rogers, Benchmark promises to bring an entirely new sensibility to town.

Aurora Fox Arts Center

There's been a bit of an identity crisis at the shabby, comfy old Fox over the past year — a handful of fantastic shows, as well as a couple that completely misfired. This summer, a new executive producer, Helen R. Murray, takes over, and her hire says a lot for Aurora's commitment to theater and the arts. An actor and writer, Murray founded The Hub in Fairfax, Virginia, a decade ago. She's a multi-award winner, known for working with playwrights and commissioning new plays. Before Murray takes the reins, however, the Fox will present Passing Strange, an exuberant and unusual musical by songwriters Stew and Heidi Rodewald that won the kind of praise you rarely hear from East Coast critics. Sounds like a fitting way to lower the curtain on the Fox's most recent act and prepare for the next.

Courtesy Buntport Theater Facebook page

You've got out-of-town guests who think Denver's still a sleepy cowtown? Or perhaps a onetime cowtown that's been leached of all individuality and character by developers? Take them to Buntport for one of the five-member writer-actor troupe's original plays. The company occupies a small, friendly, unpretentious playing space which it uses with incredible ingenuity, and we promise you'll have an evening packed with wit, insight and surprise that's funny as hell, completely unexpected, but also thought-provoking and often deep. We also promise that you won't see anything like this anywhere else — not in London, New York, Chicago or Podunk, Iowa.

A number of local theaters have taken up the flag for civil, women's, gay and lesbian, racial and immigrant rights in these murky and difficult times, but it's fair to say that Curious, under artistic director Chip Walton, got there first, taking risks and talking politics under the slogan "No Guts, No Story." At twenty, Curious continues to tackle new, grown-up challenges, without presenting predictable, preachy work. Through April 15, it's offering Tony Kushner's The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Capitalism and Socialism With a Key to the Scriptures. Remember the Lakewood baker who refused to make a cake for a gay couple, a case that's gone all the way to the Supreme Court? Come September, Curious will stage The Cake, by up-and-coming playwright Bekah Brunstetter. "Faith, family and frosting collide in this timely new comedy," Curious hints. Sounds delicious...and very adult.

Readers' Choice: Curious Theatre Company

Stan Obert
Cleo Parker Robinson Dance's production of "Granny Dances to a Holiday Drum."

Children's theater is at its worst around the holidays: How many times can you take the kids to see A Christmas Carol without turning into Scrooge? Cleo Parker Robinson Dance's annual Granny Dances to a Holiday Drum defies the odds; it's a family-friendly, multi-generational, multicultural holiday extravaganza about an aging dancer sharing with her grandchildren her memories of performing around the globe. The production is jam-packed with myths from more than a dozen cultures that reflect on the winter holiday season. And like all Cleo Parker Robinson performances, it's a perfect high-energy mix of song, dance and acting that will keep kids of all ages engaged and learning at the same time.

Readers' Choice: Arvada Center

Courtesy Lone Tree Arts Center Facebook page

Every now and then, while watching a swift new play about clever young people or a piece that strains to be socially and politically relevant, we long to hear the strong, sure and deeply musical voice of August Wilson, one of America's foremost playwrights, chronicler of the black experience, and creator of an extraordinary community of black folks in his ten-part Pittsburgh cycle. Fences, sixth in the cycle, tells the story of Troy, a flawed and difficult man newly released from prison and struggling to care for his family. It's coming in April 2018 to the Lone Tree Arts Center, a venue whose productions, though few and far between, are always professional and meticulous.

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