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Dusty and the Big Bad World. We all know about the Christian right's attacks on textbooks, teachers, Halloween, the arts, public television and the words "happy holidays." And we know what happened when these people finally got their very own president. Dusty and the Big Bad World is based on a real event: the heavy-handed suppression by Bush's Secretary of Education of a children's television show containing a reference to homosexuality. This is a topic ripe for all-stops-out, nasty-minded satire — the kind you get when Christopher Durang takes on the Catholic Church. Unfortunately, playwright Cusi Cram is a real liberal, meaning she's thoughtful and nuanced. She wants to show the education secretary — here called Marianne — as a real person who has faced her own demons; the outspoken liberal, Nathan, as a self-righteous goof and closet chauvinist; and TV producer Jessica as a gay woman willing to compromise her principles to keep her show on the air. So while the first act is lively and filled with sharp-edged humor, the second is just a welter of earnest conversation in which the characters make points for the playwright — and what she wants to say is that she's a nice person, she really is. Not only do we lose the funny, but the entire play now feels dated — like all those exhortations from liberal columnists during the Bush years to stop feeling superior to Limbaugh's dittoheads and start empathizing with them. Most of the actors are a bit jittery, but Charlotte Booker is out-and-out terrific as Marianne. Dusty is one of a series of Denver Center Theatre Company premieres — many by women — and while I appreciate the attempt at inclusivity, I can't help wishing they'd find stronger scripts. Presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company through February 28, Space Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100,

Girls Only. The trouble with Girls Only, a two-woman evening of conversation, skits, singing, improvisation and audience participation, is that it's so relentlessly nice. Creator-performers Barbara Gehring and Linda Klein have worked together for many years; at some point, they read their early diaries to each other and were transfixed by the similarities and differences they found in them, as well as the insights they gained into their own psyches and the travails of puberty. This theater piece was developed from that material — but not all of that material. "I purposely don't read every diary entry in the show, because it turns out I was kind of mean, and I don't want to be mean," Klein told an interviewer. But mean is funny, and when you cut it out entirely, what do you have to joke about? Girly pink bedrooms, purses, bras, skinny models in glossy magazines. Every time they tell a story with the tiniest bite to it, Gehring and Klein — both talented and appealing stage performers — move instantly to reassure us that they don't mean it. At one point Klein relates an interesting tale about how she came to possess the badly taxidermied body of an electrocuted squirrel as a child; the minute she's completed this funny, freaky moment in an otherwise highly predictable evening, she gives a pouty, don't-get-me-wrong grin and sweetly caresses the squirrel's head. There's enough good material here for a tight, funny, one-hour-long show, but this one stretches on and on, as if Klein and Gehring had been determined to throw every single joke and piece of shtick that occurred to them in the script. Presented by Denver Center Attractions through June, Garner Galleria Theatre in the Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, Reviewed September 18.

Inana. In early 2003, the director of the Iraq Museum in Baghdad, having done all he could to secure the treasures in his care, has fled to this shabby hotel in England with the bride he acquired through an arrangement with her father; Inana is their story. Unfortunately, the script doesn't inspire belief. The plot is hard to swallow and the characters unconvincing. While the protagonist, Darius Shalid, does come across as a learned and dignified lover of antiquities, his relationship with Shali, his wife, is baffling. And Shali is less a person than a pastiche of all the images and ideas we have in this culture about Middle Eastern women: She's a timid creature from a rural village who's afraid to be left alone; she's a smart, spunky girl who put herself in danger by teaching other girls to read; she, personally, was one of the many female victims of the murderous Uday Hussein; she's the metaphorical incarnation of a goddess of both war and sex. It's not that a lot of terrible things didn't happen to women — and, of course, to the entire population — under Saddam Hussein, but what strains credulity is the idea that all these things could have happened to one woman, and that similar suffering would have been visited on just about every other character seen or mentioned in Inana. This production is a world premiere, but the play isn't world-class. Presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company through February 28, Ricketson Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100,

The Producers. How on earth can Boulder's Dinner Theatre, which does not have hundreds of thousands of dollars at its disposal, compete with the big, glitzy Broadway version of The Producers? Not with tech and design, obviously, nor the slickness of the big showstoppers. But this production has something that's missing from the big touring production: sheer exuberance, an exuberance that in many ways is closer to Mel Brooks's original impulse. The Producers tells the story of a Broadway producer who realized he could make more money from a flop than a hit and immediately sought out the worst script he could find: a tribute to Adolf Hitler. The idea first saw life as a 1968 movie, a movie in which Brooks stuck a fat, garlicky, Jewish thumb right into Hitler's eye. With the irrepressible Wayne Kennedy playing producer Max Bialystock and Scott Beyette as his bewildered but eventually ecstatic sidekick, Leo Bloom, the BDT cast puts the raucous, iconoclastic jump right back into the show. Presented by Boulder's Dinner Theatre through March 7, 5501 Arapahoe Avenue, Boulder, 303-449-6000, Reviewed December 4.

Rabbit Hole. Playwright David Lindsay-Abaire is known for his absurdist humor, impossible characters, unexpected quirks. But Rabbit Hole is a serious and entirely conventional drama dealing with grief — perhaps the worst grief possible, the death of a child. Bereaved mother Becca is a rigid perfectionist, given to baking sophisticated treats. She has packed away photographs of Danny, the four-year-old son killed by a car when he ran into the street after the family dog; she has given away the dog. She seems to have everything under control as she folds Danny's little tops, pants and onesies for charity. She refuses to reminisce about him, and interrupts sharply when anyone else seems about to do so. Her husband, Howie, copes by going to a support group, but he, too, seems to be functioning all right. He's pleasant and affable with Izzy, Becca's sister, and with Becca's mother, Nat — who has also suffered the loss of a son, though under very different circumstances. But every now and then, Howie or Becca snaps, usually into uncontrollable rage. You have to applaud Lindsay-Abaire's resolate lack of sentimentality; the tone is set by Becca's self-control, in the face of which emotional effusions would be vulgar. Still, what's missing from this script is an imaginative leap. Even so, under the direction of Christy Montour-Larson, Curious has staged an impeccable production, with Rachel Fowler as a nicely understated Becca and Erik Sandvold as Howie. Presented by Curious Theatre Company through February 14, 1080 Acoma Street, 303-623-0524, Reviewed January 15.

Shining City. Playwright Conor McPherson is a poet of loneliness. In Shining City, a patient, John, visits a therapist, an ex-priest named Ian. John is trying to explain something that can't be explained — that he saw the ghost of his wife after she'd died in a traffic accident, a specific figure in a red coat, half hidden by a door. Throughout this recitation and those that follow, Ian is oddly detached; he doesn't bother with the empathetic prompts therapists usually use, though he is remarkably assiduous in anticipating John's needs, filling a water glass, gesturing toward a seat, proffering Kleenex. After the session, when Ian's girlfriend appears to ask why he's abandoned her and their baby, the gulf between the two is chilling. Eventually, we learn about the silences between John and his doomed wife, as well as something about Ian's own stifled proclivities. McPherson's language constantly attempts to communicate the ineffable, and his ghosts are an extension of this attempt: If there are no words to frame reality, it makes sense to resort to the supernatural. The characters in Shining City speak in stops and starts; they stutter and repeat, and John produces great waterfalls of words. But beneath all this, you hear a melancholy, hypnotic and eternal music. The actors — Josh Hartwell as Ian, Ken Street as John, and Laura Norman as Ian's girlfriend, Neasa — give breath and humanity to these complex and enigmatic characters. Their silences are as eloquent as the words they speak; we don't think of them as acting on stage, but simply as living and being in front of us. Presented by Miners Alley Playhouse through February 15, 1224 Washington Avenue, Golden, 303-935-3044, Reviewed January 15.

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Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman

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