Best Annual Art Party 2016 | Design After Dark | Best of Denver® | Best Restaurants, Bars, Clubs, Music and Stores in Denver | Westword

Just over ten years ago, in 2005, Design Council, a support group for the Architecture, Design and Graphics department at the Denver Art Museum, launched an annual fundraiser held in the dead of winter called Design After Dark. Almost immediately, it became an absolute must-attend event for Denver-area architects, designers and artists, as well as many of their clients. This year's version, titled "Amass" and held last month in an empty roller-skating rink on South Broadway — yes, weird locations are a standard feature of the event — attracted a huge, glittering crowd heavily larded with the hip and the impeccably dressed. Organizers had invited artists and others to contribute works, some of which were spectacular, to be sold for the fundraiser. Participating artists included the likes of Ravi Zupa, Matt Scobey, Jeanne Quinn, Jaime Molina, David Kremer, Blanca Guerra and Phil Bender. The stylishness of the DAD party would seem to reflect the stylishness of the department's curator, Darrin Alfred, but he passes off credit for the event's success to the hardworking Design Council committee charged with putting it together.

It may be a coincidence, but many top companies staged one-act evenings in the past year. These ranged from the hilarious Murder for Two at the Garner Galleria — which specializes in lighthearted, after-work entertainment — to the wistful one-woman musical Tell Me on a Sunday at the Avenue. There was also the Denver Center's Fade, a thoughtful play about class, race and identity in Hollywood, and Edge's heart-stopping production of the tragedy Medea — which definitively proved that you can get as much emotional, poetic and intellectual punch from a short evening as you can from a long one. If you're looking for a cheerful night out, something thoughtful to chew on or a jolt of culture that still leaves enough time for a late-evening drink or dinner — or just an early night at home — the theater world has you covered.

It's getting absurdly hard to park your car when visiting downtown theater venues. There are evenings when you find yourself racing to the Denver Center from a faraway parking lot, only to arrive ten minutes late anyway. Parking is even tight these days for more far-flung venues like Miners Alley in mellow downtown Golden. But somehow it's never necessary to leave home extra early for a play at Curious. Get there on time or only a little early, and you'll find parking comfortably close in the lot opposite the theater.

The narrow strip mall outside is unappealing, but once you've walked into the Edge Theater itself, you're in a different world — brightly colored, with original works of art displayed to your left and a busy bar to your right, the entire lobby milling with cheerful people. Behind the desk, there's often an actor or director you recognize who seems to know every patron by name. Your fellow theater-goers tend to be equally friendly. You can start a conversation with something as obvious as, "Do you come to the Edge often?" or, "What have you seen here that you liked?" And if you're so inclined, you can continue the discussion over a beer at intermission.

Cabaret wouldn't be a risky choice for most theater companies — the show has been around a while, and its shock value has faded. But for Phamaly, composed of actors with a variety of disabilities, this musical about the dissolute life activities in Berlin's Kit Kat Klub in the years leading up to World War II represented a huge challenge. Performers were asked to writhe, pose, embrace and strut their sexiest stuff on stage in skin-baring costumes, and they did it with beautiful, no-holds-barred panache.

The Avenue Theater is a part of Denver history, a friendly, cozy, well-situated venue that's been around for over twenty years. But for several seasons there's been a sense of drift, and the offerings on stage have been wildly uneven — serious plays, comic sketches, shows that didn't seem to know whether they were serious or comic. John Ashton ran the place from 1990 to 2005 — overseeing a period when it changed location — then sold it, but remained involved in various capacities. And now, after a period of churn, Ashton has taken over as executive director. His first season began with a professionally produced rendition of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Tell Me on a Sunday, and the rest of the year looks just as promising, with David Mamet's hilarious — and very aptly timed — political sendup November; and Bakersfield Mist, a hit on Broadway that starred Kathleen Turner, about an unemployed bartender who thinks she's found a genuine Jackson Pollock painting and the arrogant, erudite art expert sent to authenticate it.

Several local theaters provide openings for new plays — contests, readings and full productions for a handful of local playwrights. But opportunities are thin on the ground, and autonomy is close to nonexistent for writers. Dirtyfish (the group's website warns you not to look up the name in the Urban Dictionary, and how right they are!) comprises seven of our best and most productive playwrights: Tami Canaday, William Missouri Downs, Lisa Wagner Erickson, Ellen K. Graham, Leslie C. Lewis, Nina Alice Miller and Jeffrey Neuman. These writers decided, as they state, "to combat the trend of endless staged readings that all too often do not lead to full production." Instead, they stage their own works as a collective, as well as generally broadening opportunities for Colorado writers. They introduced Dirtyfish to the world early this month with a group of fully produced short works — one by each of them — collectively titled Wedding Cake Vodka.

We grieved when the long-lived and much-loved Heritage Square Music Hall troupe said goodbye a couple of years back with an energetic evening of songs and jokes. We left the theater that night mulling memories of fine voices, zany antics, skilled musical numbers, men in drag, and audience members being dragged onto the stage. We wondered if we'd ever see those true comic originals Rory Pierce, Annie Dwyer, T.J. Mullin, Johnette Toye and Alex Crawford in a performance again. We're happy to report semi-regular appearances by at least three of them. Dwyer's Frau Bleucher in Young Frankenstein brought down the house at the Littleton Town Hall Arts Center and won her a Henry Award. She went on to star in Miracle on 34th Street at Johnstown's Candlelight Dinner Theater alongside Mullin as Kris Kringle. Rory Pierce showed up in The Odd Couple at the Barth Hotel, and charmed the audience in Songs for a New World at Miners Alley, where he also has a position coordinating the children's program. Welcome back.

Courtesy Lone Tree Arts Center Facebook page

The Lone Tree Arts Center mounts a variety of interesting events, including concerts, ballets and lectures, but it's the venue's rare theater productions — one or two a year — that make a visit worthwhile. This year's ridiculously funny offering, The Explorers Club, revealed what happens when a woman invades a stuffy Victorian male sanctuary demanding admission. "Your science is adequate," she's told, "but your sex is weak with sin and led astray with diverse lusts." The mayhem that followed was carried out by some of the area's best actors, including Sam Gregory, Mark Rubald, Stephanie Cozart, Rob Costigan, Erik Sandvold and Randy Moore, and under the direction of Randal Myler, the tech — costumes, set, lighting — was brilliant. Keep an eye out for LTAC's next dramatic gem.

The Boulder-based Catamounts is one of the wittiest companies around, so when the Dairy Arts Center became unavailable due to construction, they improvised as only the Catamounts can. For A Public Reading, they took over a large room at Madelife — a Boulder store and gallery intended as a launching pad for artists and entrepreneurs — and brought in risers and chairs, hung lights and installed a movable bar serving drinks. The result was one of those unexpected, welcoming, off-the-beaten-track playing spaces that make an evening at the theater feel like an adventure. And in case all of that wasn't enough, audiences were treated to after-show craft beer and excellent snacks.

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