Tongue of a Bird is a pretentious, forgettable play about a woman pilot searching the mountains for a lost child. But it had a bright spot in teenage actor Brittany Heileman. She appeared to the protagonist in visions, her face bloodied, in a performance that was sharp, quick, cheerful and without a trace of sentimentality. Heileman is that rarest of beings: a young actor you really want to watch.

In one of the funniest, sweetest scenes in Kafka on Ice, Erin Rollman skated on a floor of artificial ice, skidding, gliding and falling cutely about as a Chaplinesque Kafka (played by Gary Culig) sped to her rescue again and again. Rollman is one of Denver's most inspired comic actresses; in Kafka on Ice, she was able not only to reveal her gift for caricature, but also to venture more deeply into character -- which, paradoxically, made her performance even more hilarious.

Playwright Mary Zimmerman incorporated large segments of poetry into Metamorphoses, including passages from Ovid and Rilke's extraordinary "Orpheus. Eurydice. Hermes." The poems lend the script much of its power, but they can also be a mouthful. Elocution isn't taught much these days, and many actors scorn verbal precision and fluidity. Trina O'Neil has these qualities in spades. Her beautiful lucidity made Rilke's words resonate long after the play was over.

The dying Prior in Angels in America is often whiny, snappish or unreasonable, but he has intellect and dignity, too. In the Bas Bleu/OpenStage Theatre and Company production, Todd Coulter gave all these characteristics their due. Late in the play, Prior receives a reprieve, thanks to new AIDS drugs, and from then on, he becomes a kind of guide into the future. It was wonderful to watch this revivification, and Coulter's final blessing was touching.

Good impressionists don't just mimic their subjects, they become them -- and Frank Gorshin simply was George Burns in this production. He had the man's walk and mannerisms, and also seemed to possess his spirit.

In Paul Robeson, a one-man show detailing the life of the scholar/athlete/performer of its title, Russell Costen held the stage for over two hours on his own. Robeson was a tall, powerful man with a rumbling bass voice, while Costen is shorter and more muted. Still, Costen communicated Robeson's gravitas and found his measured vocal cadences. Though this was a highly skilled performance, it was about far more than skill: It was a generous and openhearted act of tribute.

Alicia Dunfee wasn't the obvious choice to play Sally Bowles, Cabaret's immature heroine; Dunfee is a grown-up woman who takes the stage with authority. Nonetheless, the interpretation worked. As always, Dunfee gave herself fully to each musical number and held the audience mesmerized. But she also created a convincing portrait of a naive sophisticate, managing not only an English accent, but 1930s intonations, as well.

Casting Terry Burnsed as Bloom in Circe, a staged chapter from Ulysses, was a stretch. Burnsed is slender and small, closer in body type to James Joyce himself than to such traditional Blooms as Zero Mostel. But his performance in the role was masterly. He managed the difficult feat of making the character simultaneously ascetic and self-indulgent, anguished and funny, powerless and the fulcrum of the action.

William Nicholson's The Retreat From Moscow was a real find for the Aurora Fox -- the best production staged there in several years. The play details the breakdown of a highly civilized marriage, unfurling in low-key, logical increments. It's subtle, passionate, assured and full of magnificent bits of quoted poetry.

In PHAMALy's Guys and Dolls -- and with a nod to Marlon Brando -- Leonard Barrett Jr. shone as the seductive conman Sky Masterson. In Angels in America, he played a completely different role: that of Belize, a former drag queen. Here his acting was playfully self-aware without being self-conscious; he was sometimes funny and sometimes wise. When, without sentimentality, he told the dying protagonist Prior that he'd be with him all the way, he touched us to the core. The theater community has a satisfying double threat in Barrett Jr.

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