Best Specialty Theater Group 2014 | Theatre Esprit Asia | Best of Denver® | Best Restaurants, Bars, Clubs, Music and Stores in Denver | Westword

Theatre Esprit Asia, a local company bringing together pan-Asian casts with culture-centric works, has proven in its first season that the concept is no flash in the pan. Not only is TEA, the theatrical brainchild of actors Maria Cheng and Tria Xiong, strong on talent, but the fine acting has been put to good use in challenging works that are new to the region. It was a leap, no doubt, to even start an all-Asian company in a city where independent theater groups often struggle, but we read the promise of continued success in TEA's leaves. All theater troupes do not look alike.

Steve, the uni-monikered leader of the folk ensemble FaceMan, figured he'd draw on the hypnotic power of scary sharks and funky folk rock when he planned a gig at the relatively small Lost Lake Lounge last October. Inspired by the bogus Discovery Channel documentary about a (fake, as it turns out) prehistoric shark called the Megalodon, Steve commissioned a monumental piece of stagecraft. Designed and built by Justin Hicks, Katie Webster and Keli Sequoia of Incite Productions (who also work as carpenters and set designers for Denver Center for the Performing Arts), the final shark-shaped set took up a big chunk of the bar's back room. Featuring razor-sharp chompers, crimson shark lips and life-like grey skin, the shark stage proved the perfect complement to FaceMan's brand of ambitious rock and roll. Here's hoping FaceMan and his crew of creative geniuses find a way to top themselves this year. Maybe there's a way to build an accurate re-creation of the polar vortex...

The witty The Most Deserving described the travails of a small-town granting agency that has $20,000 to award to a deserving artist. Except that there aren't many artists around, and no one can agree on a definition of deserving. The closest thing to a real visionary is Everett Whiteside, an African-American who makes sculpture out of trash and seems to be the real thing, a guy touched by the genuine wonder of creation. But he is also a crazed, uncontrolled loser who takes Tea Party paranoia over the top as he fulminates about the government having crawled up his ass (and he means it literally). The role is a gift for an actor, and in the Denver Center Theatre Company production Jonathan Earl Peck seized it with both hands, rambling, ranting, muttering, conniving and endowing every crazy moment with conviction and passion.

At first, John, a thief and joker, seems to be around for light relief in The Whipping Man, Matthew Lopez's audacious play about a Confederate soldier returning home from the war with a gangrened leg and celebrating Passover with two of his family's freed slaves, who have been raised in Judaism by his father. But in the second act, John delivers a long, impassioned speech that electrifies the audience — and also clarifies the meaning of the play's title. As John, Laurence Curry spoke these words with strength and deep feeling — but impressive as this climactic sequence was, it wasn't the most impressive aspect of his work. Even while joking, teasing, ducking and weaving, he communicated John's deeply ambivalent response to the dance of blame and reconciliation playing out in front of him. It was in his silences, the way he listened and moved, the angle of his head, the unexpressed rage that sometimes blazed into his eyes.

The last time we saw Stephen Day play a leading role was as Albin in the Arvada Center's The Birdcage some years back, when he was a fussy, silly delight. For the most part, he shows up in supporting though significant roles, as he did this year in A Christmas Carol: The Musical, also at the Arvada Center. And whenever he does, he adds warmth, assurance and a rich, strong baritone to the proceedings. As the Spirit of Christmas Past, he evoked every nostalgic, Dickensian thought you've ever had about the meaning of the season.

Failure: A Love Story is a swift, sad-funny theater piece featuring three lovely sisters: giggly, luminous Nelly, athletic, swim-obsessed Jenny June, and patient, practical Gertie. Metaphorically, they could all be facets of a single, fascinating woman, as each, in turn, enjoys a passionate love affair with the same man. In the Catamounts' intellectually elegant production, the women were all beautifully portrayed — but as played by Trina Magness, Gertie seemed to embody the depths and sorrows of all three sisters. Magness imbued this character with a radiant, low-key warmth that centered the entire evening.

Emily Paton Davies seems to get better every year, and her portrayal of lonely, angry Maureen, trapped with a crazed, manipulative mother in Edge Theatre's production of The Beauty Queen of Leenane, was a revelation. Her timing was impeccable, her emotional responses beautifully and passionately modulated throughout. Even as Maureen's longing and despair broke your heart, her rages froze it.

Most productions of Hair just don't get Sheila, the anti-war agitator with the vulnerable heart. They make her a caricature, or some sort of hippie-ish but tight-assed, lean-in corporate boss. But director Nick Sugar cast the perfect actress in the role in his Town Hall Arts Center production: Norrell Moore, red-haired, strong-featured, down-to-earth and passionate. You could easily imagine this woman inspiring a crowd into action or leading a march. It didn't hurt that she has a terrific voice and got to shine in two of the show's most memorable songs: "Easy to Be Hard" and "Good Morning Starshine."

The Alamo Drafthouse Cinema is a national chain, yes, but the Texas-based theater house still leaves room in its monthly lineup for programming unique to each location. Enter Keith Garcia, a devout cinephile who left the city after a decade with the Denver Film Society and took his eclectic taste and unique event-planning skills to the Alamo in 2013. He's already invited Hollywood badass Pam Grier to the theater and started the new, late-night cult horror-film series Channel Z, all while bringing great, underappreciated films and forgotten classics to a brand-new audience.

It's worth visiting Curious for the building alone, an intimate, beautiful structure that got its start as a nineteenth-century church, with a heavy wooden door and, along the walls, the frames of long-gone stained-glass windows. And whether you're feeling holy or just plain thirsty, it's definitely worth mounting the stairs before the show or during intermission to visit the Sanctuary Bar, where you can get beer, whiskey, soda or a glass of wine and chat with fellow theater lovers in a cozy, time-burnished ambience that recalls a traditional English pub.

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