Best Display of Sheer On-Stage Gutsiness 2016 | Phamaly Theatre Company, Cabaret | Best of Denver® | Best Restaurants, Bars, Clubs, Music and Stores in Denver | Westword

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.

Chris Kendall has been a quietly fine and reliable mainstay on area stages for several years, but this year he came into full focus with several stellar performances: a bullying father, F, in the Edge Theater's Cock; Leonato in the Colorado Shakespeare Festival's Much Ado About Nothing; Tony Reilly, a wonderfully nasty old crank, in the Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company's Outside Mullingar; and — perhaps best of all — a dying Freud, wise and sad and too tired to continue in the quest for truth, in that same company's Hysteria. Given Kendall's versatility and the non-flashy truth of his acting, it's no wonder so many of our best companies request his services.

Emma Messenger dominates any stage whenever she's on — not with big bravura performances, but with a strong, warm groundedness and an always-present vibe of hidden depth. She brought these qualities to varied roles this year: a strangely secretive and defensive mother in Edge Theater's Exit Strategies; a brilliantly vicious and vulnerable Martha in the same company's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?; and an oddly uncompassionate though politically committed doctor in The Normal Heart at Vintage Theatre.

There are a lot of rumors surrounding Walt Disney — that he spied for the FBI, that he was a racist and an anti-Semite, that he crushed unions. In Lucas Hnath's inventive play, all this is true, and Disney is also a monster of ego, who manipulates and betrays everyone around him and tries to shape the entire world to his own specifications. Paul Borrillo communicated the sheer, unmitigated awfulness of this American icon with calm, lofty authority and held the audience spellbound.

In Hysteria, a strange and fascinating mix of tragedy and farce, Michael Bouchard played Salvador Dalí — he of the astonishing waxed mustache, melting clocks and surreal landscapes. Bouchard was everything you could wish for in this fabulous role. He minced, he smirked, he rattled and pranced, he took off his pants and donned them again, he understood precisely the line he needed to tread between realism and farcical lunacy, and he enjoyed himself so thoroughly that you couldn't help laughing at his every move, becoming slightly disappointed when he was called on to be serious.

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