They're baa-ack--the original cast (save one) of Denver's long-running Murder Most Fowl, that is. The play returns to the Avenue Theater this season as (A Very Merry) Murder Most Fowl. The plot's the same, but the jokes are all new, and the interactive element remains the show's primary draw--the audience enjoys participating in the game of finding the murderer.

Ham actor Robert Poulet (rhymes with Goulet) is starring in Macbeth, with notorious theater slut Holly Pharme as Lady Macbeth. Her lover and the show's producer, Dexter Coop, hates Poulet as much as Holly does. But stage manager Max Nugget and bit player Hammond Deggs both hate him, too. So when Poulet misses his cue and Nugget runs backstage to get him, it's no surprise that the actor is found dead, fowlly murdered indeed with a sharp rubber chicken.

As police lieutenant Sanders (persistently referred to as "Colonel" by Holly) peers into the case, he reveals to the cast that the entire audience has been privy to the backstage shenanigans of the cast. The audience is invited to ask questions, to read messages and eventually to vote on whodunit. As the cast cracks wise in response to audience inquiries, you realize they're improvising an awful lot of this material. Fortunately, most of it works.

But then, this cast worked this show for four years (it ran a total of five), and they know what they're up to. Pamela Clifton as Holly goes for tawdry glamour and then unmasks herself hilariously as a childish bimbo capable of the most extravagant, transparent lies. Bill Berry's slightly drunken Dexter Coop masterfully combines upper-crust bluster with masculine insecurities. Bob Wells's broadly fey gay stage manager may not be politically correct, but he is delightfully outrageous. John Ashton's Lieutenant Sanders is a head-scratching incompetent, one part Columbo to two parts Inspector Clouseau. And Rob Johnson rounds out the ensemble as the self-pitying Hammond Deggs.

Mixing libidinal jokes with political gibes and running puns, (A Very Merry) Murder Most Fowl lands a few deft punches along with all the broad slaps and silly dashes. It's different and it's fun--perfect for the secular holidays.

Should you prefer a more traditional--i.e., pointedly Christmas-oriented production--check out Yuletide Celebrations: A Renaissance Christmas, presented by the South Suburban Theatre Company at Littleton's Town Hall Arts Center. A large cast rollicks through a number of ancient carols, stories and games based on both medieval and renaissance traditions.

Viewers do not often get the opportunity to see the medieval Second Shepherd's Play, at least not by a professional theater company in Denver, and the second act of Yuletide Celebrations includes excerpts from that marvelous old mystery.

The program opens with a recorder concert of carols and early music. Before the house lights go down, the audience is invited to feast on cider and cookies, while a few of the actors create little puffs of laughter as they quietly tease audience members. Then the loosely constructed but delightfully written play by playwright/director Annawyn Shamas sets up a Christmas Eve in Asbury Manor, 1402. The mummers--a group of everyday folk who travel around putting on a play about their patron saint, George--arrive to perform, followed by the little carolers. St. George fights the Black Knight, loses and then is brought back to life, symbolizing the return of spring.

This is the first Christmas show I've seen in Denver that does not try to evade the issue of the birth of Jesus. The religious elements work quite well without becoming sentimental or proselytizing. Best of all, the voices are very good, the acting is (largely) accomplished and the musicians are pros. The whole show has a rough-and-tumble grace--not quite slick, and therefore not exploitative. The feeling is wholly other than the one you get at the mall.

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