This is your last chance to see two productions on local stages: Human Error, the Denver Center for the Performing Arts Theatre Company's first production in the Garner Galleria, closes this weekend, as does District Merchants at Miners Alley. Keep reading for capsule reviews of those shows, as well as three more on stages around town.
Agnes of God. A very young nun gives birth alone in her room at the convent; the baby’s corpse is discovered in a wastebasket. The questions that follow seem unanswerable. Who impregnated Agnes? Was the child stillborn, or was it killed on delivery — and if the latter, was Agnes the killer? In John Pielmeier’s Agnes of God, two strong women struggle over the puzzle, each fascinated by Agnes and claiming a particular connection to her. Mother Miriam Ruth wants to protect her vulnerable protégé, and finds something saintly in her. Dr. Livingstone has been tasked by a court to examine Agnes and decide whether she should be charged with murder or classified as insane. She purports to be scientific and impartial, but it turns out she’s far from objective. The dialogue is passionate, intelligent and always absorbing. It works in the interstices between desire and reality, evoking the near-universal human longing for some kind of transcendence. This production is bookended by two terrific performances: Haley Johnson reveals a deep and moving emotional commitment to the role of Dr. Livingstone, and Emma Messenger’s Mother Miriam Ruth is shadowed and complex. Unfortunately, the tech in this black-box theater is rudimentary. The set is misconceived and the costumes look inauthentic. This is an ambitious company that has staged some interesting plays in a fine permanent home; directors now need to turn their attention to that home. Presented by Vintage Theatre through July 8, 1468 Dayton Street, Aurora, 303-856-7830, vintagetheatre.com. Read the full review of Agnes of God.
District Merchants. Playwright Aaron Posner’s intentions in writing District Merchants, his version of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, are admirable, and his skill as a writer seems more than fitted to the task. Miners Alley is showing District Merchants in a regional premiere, and it’s an inspired choice by director Len Matheo, given the murky political times we live in. But though there are a lot of good things in this play, ultimately it doesn’t hold together. Posner's focus is on discrimination, race, class and the way suffering can breed rage and a thirst for revenge as easily as empathy. Though the action is set in Washington, D.C., during the Reconstruction Era, the characters’ thoughts and struggles also apply to our times. The first act sticks fairly closely to Shakespeare’s plot, though it adds a couple of surprises, while the second diverges more. Throughout, the characters stop the action to address the audience directly and discuss what’s just happened — each from his or her own viewpoint. This is rich soil. You have a Jew locked in struggle with a black man, both of them equally wealthy, both very aware of the traumas their people have endured; they understand each other; they may half like each other. But the issues are talked about in those monologues rather than dramatized in character and action, and periodically become preachy. It doesn’t help that Shakespeare himself towers over the evening. When fragments of his actual text appear, they emphasize the peril of trying to update and casualize the dialogue. Shylock’s “You spat at me” to Antoine doesn’t begin to match the exquisite fake courtesy of the original: “Fair sir, you spat on me on Wednesday last/You spurned me such a day; another time/You called me dog — and for these courtesies/I’ll lend you thus much monies?” Presented by Miners Alley Playhouse through June 24,1224 Washington Avenue, Golden, 303-935-3044, minersalley.com. Read the full review of District Merchants.
Human Error. Eric Pfeffinger’s Human Error, which throws together two couples, one liberal, one conservative, through a mix-up at a fertility clinic, sounds like a sitcom dealing in the shallowest kind of stereotype. We’d see that the right-wingers are essentially good people and — since playwrights tend to be self-lacerating liberals themselves — that the leftists are blinkered and humorless. Everyone will come together in the end. But miracle of miracles, that’s not what Pfeffinger has written. Keenan is an academic who researches comedy — which leads to some pungent analysis applied to this comic play itself. His wife, Madelyn, once had academic ambitions, too, but left the university to teach yoga. The play begins with their visit to the clinic, where they learn from bumbling Dr. Hoskins that their embryo has been mistakenly placed in the womb of another woman. That woman is hyper-religious Heather, married to gun-toting, football loving, conservative Jim. There’s a lot of funny business as Jim persuades Keenan to visit Cabela’s and admire the mounted lion’s head on the wall, and quinoa-loving Madelyn worries about her child’s development when Heather admits to an occasional beer. But after a while, the couples find common ground and even do a little wary bonding. You’re starting to think that the kumbaya reconciliation of right and left is close at hand, but here comes the twist. And then another. What makes Human Error work is not so much that the characters find areas of political agreement, but that, forced to face their deepest feelings about birth, love, loss and hope, these very different people discover the universal humanity they share. Presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company through June 24, Garner Galleria Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, denvercenter.org. Read the full review of Human Error.
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Love’s Labour's Lost. I have read Love’s Labour's Lost and seen it on stage. I am generally comfortable with Shakespeare’s language. But watching this production, I found some crucial segments of the plot passing me by. I knew this was a play about four young noblemen who swore to devote themselves to a life of study for three years, renouncing comfort and the company of women — a decision that would soon be challenged by the arrival of the beautiful Princess of France with her three equally beautiful handmaidens. But I should have re-read the text. Because when it came to the secondary plot featuring the comic characters, I couldn’t for the life of me remember who Costard was or make sense of a word that pedantic scholar Holofernes uttered. The confusion was in part because the language in this play is very dense in places, but also because some of the actors were hamming like crazy and seemed more interested in their own shtick than in the words they spoke.
Still, it’s fun watching the women get the upper hand and wield it mercilessly, the tone is light and frothy, and it makes for an enjoyable evening. Presented by the Colorado Shakespeare Festival through August 8, University of Colorado Boulder, 303-492-8008, cupresents.org. Read the full review of Love's Labour's Lost.
Underground Railroad Game. This piece written and performed by Jennifer Kidwell and Scott R. Sheppard is designed to jolt us into consciousness. But despite this, Underground Railroad Game is in no way didactic, nor is it really a spur to action. You don’t leave having come to a deeper understanding about the Civil War or about race, but you are riveted and absorbed through the play’s 75 minutes. An escaped slave slides nervously across the stage, hides. A bearded man appears; he’s a Quaker, come to show her the direction she needs to take. The scene has a serious, soft-focus quality. Then we’re in a middle-school classroom, the tone is semi-comic, and the characters have transformed: the slave becoming Teacher Caroline, the Quaker Teacher Stuart and the audience student participants in an educational game. It soon becomes clear, however, that the teachers are hugely drawn to each other, and some astonishingly graphic scenes follow. The performances are terrific and brilliantly courageous. Still, it’s hard to decipher a meaning. Perhaps the play is about the stories we tell to minimize our tainted history, or shows how this original sin poisons interactions between black and white. The ambiguity is ambiguous in itself: You could take it for a flaw or a strength. I see it as a flaw. And yet this is an evening I wouldn’t want to have missed. Presented by Curious Theatre Company through July 1, 1080 Acoma Street, 303-623-0524, curioustheatre.org. Read the review of Underground Railroad Game.