Gem of the Ocean. August Wilson set out to write the history of black Americans in the twentieth century in ten plays -- all but one of them set in Pittsburgh's Hill District -- and managed to complete the cycle before dying last fall. Gem of the Ocean is the ninth of these plays, but the first chronologically (it's set in 1904). It's also the only play in which we see the mythical Aunt Ester, whose name is frequently invoked in Wilson's work, in the flesh. The action takes place in Ester's home, which serves as a sanctuary during the troubled period following slavery. On the premises live Black Mary -- a young woman who spends her time cooking, cleaning, doing laundry and serving the others, and who is treated by Aunt Ester with uncharacteristic harshness -- and the wise and phlegmatic Eli. The household gets periodic visits from Rutherford Selig, an itinerant tinker, and Solly Two Kings, a veteran of the underground railroad. And a young man has also been haunting the place, begging to see Aunt Ester because, he says, he needs his soul washed. Wilson takes ideas and images from myth, folk tales and the Bible, shifting them slightly, adding his own weight and shading to create an evangelical play in the best sense of the word. Gem of the Ocean is transformative, a call to action, a paean of praise to freedom -- not the ersatz freedom of political speeches, but the limitless, wild thing itself. Director Israel Hicks has assembled a superb cast for this production, and their performance is an act of tribute and of love. Presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company through February 25, Space Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org. Reviewed February 9.
Impulse Theater. Basements and comedy go together like beer and nuts or toddlers and sandboxes. The basement of the Wynkoop Brewing Co., where Impulse Theater performs, is crowded, loud and energetic. Impulse does no prepared skits, nothing but pure improv -- which means that what you see changes every night, and so does the team of actors. These actors set up and follow certain rules and frameworks; they rely on audience suggestions to get these scenes going or to vary the action. Your level of enjoyment depends a lot on whether or not you like the players. Charm is a factor, and so is the ability to take risks. Fortunately, the performers are clever and fast on their feet, willing to throw themselves into the action but never betraying tension or anxiety, perfectly content to shrug off a piece that isn't coming together. The show is funny when the actors hit a groove, but equally funny when they get stymied. So in a way, the improvisers -- and the audience -- can't lose. Presented by Impulse Theater in an open-ended run, Wynkoop Brewing Co., 1634 18th Street, 303-297-2111 or www.impulsetheater.com.
Jesus Hates Me. Ethan lives with his religion-obsessed mother, Annie, in a trailer on a Jesus-themed golf course in rural Texas, where Jesus and his apostles are represented by appropriately dressed (or undressed) store dummies. The sheriff, Trane, is African-American and Ethan's best friend; he's on the hunt for the kidnapper of a little Vietnamese girl. There's also Lizzy, with whom Ethan once had sex; dopey Boone, who ends up in bed with Annie; and Georgie, who tried to kill himself during high school graduation and now -- in one of the script's truly inspired bits -- speaks through a voice box in a strange, low-pitched, mechanized tone that never fails to get a laugh. Parts of the play, now in a world premiere at the Denver Center Theatre Company, are very funny. Other moments sound soggy and Hollywoodish, too sitcom-sincere for the would-be outrageous setting. The action lurches from the rollicking hijinks of the twenty-somethings to the closet scene from Hamlet -- son accusing mother, mother accusing son, incestuous overtones. It's hard to care about the characters, and there's something seriously wrong when the protagonist is feeling more pity for himself than you can muster up for him. Presented through March 11 at the Ricketson Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org. Reviewed January 26.