Braided Sorrow. No one knows exactly how many young women have been murdered in the Mexican border town of Juárez over the last decade, perhaps three or four hundred. The murder rate shot up after the North American Free Trade Agreement was signed in 1994, when several U.S. companies set up assembly plants in Juarez in search of cheap labor and Mexicans began pouring in from the country's impoverished interior. The Juárez murders caught the attention of Marisela Treviño Orta, who made them the subject of her first play. It's a gutsy start. The script isn't perfect, but for this premiere, director Tony Garcia has elicited profoundly moving performances from his actors, beginning with Gemma Aguayo, whose ethereal beauty reminds us that her character's name — Alma — means "soul." Presented by El Centro Su Teatro through October 18, 4725 High Street, 303-296-0219, www.suteatro.org. Reviewed October 2.
Curse of the Starving Class. The moment you walk into the theater, you know you're in Sam Shepard country — a place suffused with memories of the mythic Old West, but where the breadth and purity of that myth serve only to underline the disappointing realities of contemporary life. There's drunken, violent Weston; his two children, manchild Wesley and adolescent daughter Emma; and their wife and mother, Ella, who appears not to care a whit about any of them. Director Chip Walton and his cast have made the characters even more cloddish than they appear in the script, and sometimes the interpretation edges into caricature. The script is not Shepard at his best, but even lesser Shepard offers dark, ironic humor and startling dramatic moments. Presented by Curious Theatre Company through October 18, 1080 Acoma Street, 303-623-0524, www.curioustheatre.org. Reviewed September 11.
Les Misérables. This huge, sprawling musical is based on Victor Hugo's novel, Les Misérables, and the plot centers on the merciless pursuit of a freed prisoner, Jean Valjean, by a bitter police detective, Javert. In the course of the chase, which continues over several decades, we encounter everything from revolutionaries at the ramparts to an orphaned golden-haired tot, daughter of a reluctant and desperately poor prostitute, who will grow into a beautiful, golden-haired woman and marry the handsome and principled young hero, a revolutionary named Marius, all under the loving eye of the virtuous though still endangered Valjean. With this much action, there's not a lot of room for character exploration or complexity. Instead, the actors sing a great deal — there are only three spoken words in the entire musical — and almost always at the highest pitch of passion. But since the music is beautiful and the cast boasts several magnificent voices, that's pretty much all you need for a thrilling evening. Director Rod A. Lansberry has poured energy and resources into his revival, assembling a fine eight-piece orchestra under conductor Martha Yordy, finding a way of creating the many required venues without the famed turntable set (Brian Mallgrave's design is workable and evocative), and bringing together a talented group of actors. Presented by the Arvada Center through October 19, 6901 Wadsworth Boulevard, 720-898-7200, www.arvadacenter.org. Reviewed October 2.
Tiny Alice. Some parts of Tiny Alice are laughably literal. At the beginning, for instance, a Catholic cardinal in full black-and-red regalia tweets affectionately at some caged birds — cardinals, naturally. Other words and images seem to offer familiar themes or easy metaphoric puzzles. But ultimately the play is impenetrable, incomprehensible. Fortunately, this doesn't matter, because it's also brilliant, evocative, funny and so theatrical that audience attention doesn't waver for a single moment. The action begins when a man called Lawyer tells Cardinal that his boundlessly rich female employer is offering the church billions of dollars. Someone must go to her castle to finalize the details, and Julian is chosen for the task. At the castle he meets Butler, who has a puzzling relationship with Lawyer, sometimes angry, sometimes loving. A major feature of this palatial home is a small model of the place set on a table. There's something magical about this model: When one of its rooms begins to flicker, the same room in the actual castle bursts into flame. This strange universe — which combines the hallucinatory red and black of a vampire film with a whimsy reminiscent of Lewis Carroll — is presided over by the not-particularly-tiny Alice, a woman of baffling contradictions. We never know whether playwright Edward Albee intended these characters as real or supernatural figures. Perhaps they represent the corruption of the Catholic Church on earth, or the ways in which the search for purity and for God twists human beings. The scariest possibility is that these characters do truly stand for God, or the workings of His will — which means it's a pretty nasty God we're dealing with, a deity with a truly vicious sense of humor. Presented by Germinal Stage Denver through October 12, 2450 West 44th Avenue, 303-455-7108, www.germinalstage.com. Reviewed September 25.