Best Theater Production 2016 | Hysteria | Best of Denver® | Best Restaurants, Bars, Clubs, Music and Stores in Denver | Westword

We've enjoyed an unusually large number of fine, interesting, new and unorthodox plays in area theaters this year, but images from one production keep recurring in memory: Terry Johnson's brilliant Hysteria. It's a hilarious farce complete with multiple doors, unexpected exits and entrances, ridiculous misunderstandings, silly accents, a man without his pants and a naked woman in a closet. But it's set in London just before World War II; the protagonist is a dying Sigmund Freud, and a strange young woman presents him with an accusation that may invalidate his life's work. He also receives a visit from Salvador Dalí. So naturally, all kinds of absurdist and evocative imagery gets introduced. Snails and mucus. Sex and touch aversion. Salt, semen and bird shit. Phallic statues. Swans and starlings. And, of course, a melting clock, a roaring train and solid objects that turn to rubber. There are levels on levels of meaning here, but the play isn't dense or hard to watch; it's funny, surprising, moving and absorbing throughout — as well as deeply sad. Michael Stricker directed with a sure hand, the cast was terrific, the set beautifully detailed and the special effects mind-boggling. Hysteria did exactly what theater is meant to do: It set the imagination soaring.

Readers' choice: The Book of Mormon

The Denver Center for the Performing Arts Theatre Company deserves accolades for its light, airy and beautiful As You Like It alone, as well as for All the Way, a fascinating dissection of Lyndon B. Johnson's struggle to get the Civil Rights Act of 1964 through Congress (and a play that should be required viewing for everyone who intends to vote this fall). But those weren't the company's only fine achievements. There was also Theresa Rebeck's clever, provocative and entertaining The Nest, a play about a venerable bar inspired, in part, by Denver's legendary My Brother's Bar. Robert Schenkkan, who wrote All the Way, also had the daring idea of creating a musical called The 12 depicting the gathering of the disciples after the crucifixion, and the company gave it a stunning production. Another historical piece, One Night in Miami, imagined Malcolm X, Cassius Clay, singer-entrepreneur Sam Cooke, and famed NFL running back Jim Brown celebrating in a hotel room after Clay's victory over Sonny Liston; the two-person one-act Fade told the story of the difficulties faced by a Latina hired as a Hollywood television writer and her friendship with the janitor who cleans her office. And then Tribes, which had a partially deaf protagonist, explored profound questions about communication — verbal, silent, physical, written — and the function of sound in our lives, as well as the meaning of family and community. Artistic director Kent Thompson has been supporting new work, creating on-stage diversity and hiring women and minority playwrights since his 2005 arrival in Denver, and year by year his vision solidifies and bears more interesting fruit.

Readers' choice: The Buell Theatre

The Denver Actors Fund was created in 2013 by John Moore to support theater people experiencing situational medical needs with modest amounts of money and volunteer help that ranges from pet-sitting to construction to meal delivery. So far the fund has distributed around $15,000. It's hard to pick only one example from the group's many good deeds, but one of the year's prominent success stories involves talented actor-singer Daniel Langhoff, who most recently starred in Next to Normal at Town Hall and Miners Alley's Pump Boys and Dinettes. Langhoff, diagnosed with colon cancer a few months after his wife, Rebecca Joseph, gave birth to their daughter, Clara, incurred costs that weren't fully covered by insurance. The fund approved a gift of $2,000 to help with bills, and photographer Laura Mathews Siebert raised an additional $1,500 with an all-day shoot. "So many thanks are owed," Langhoff wrote on the DAF website. "And I'm happy to spend the rest of my life giving them."

Hillary Clinton's presidential run has sparked a lot of discussion about feminism, with many younger women defecting to Bernie Sanders and older ones accusing their younger counterparts of betraying the cause — all of this accompanied by oft-anguished attempts to define just what feminism is. The Nest, Theresa Rebeck's play about the fate of a fabled bar, was written a year ago — it began life at the New Play Summit — but it's very timely. It begins with a man and woman arguing (actually, he's mansplaining) until the temperature rises and the woman tosses her basket of fries at the man's face. As soon as the couple leaves, bar regulars start bickering about who won the quarrel, and it's clear the men see it entirely differently than do the women. The Nest is a terrific conversation-starter, passionate but not didactic, very clever, and as funny as it is thought-provoking.

Female-identified kids ages eight to eighteen are embraced at Girls Rock Denver, a summer camp aimed at teaching young people to play music together. Campers learn to play an instrument, create a band, write a song and then perform together on stage — all in the short span of a week. The camp is extremely successful at teaching the art of putting a band together, but through informative workshops, female-centered music-history lessons and guest appearances by local and national rock stars, Girls Rock Denver has also become a place where feminism starts early. This summer camp is truly like no other: Future rockers and beatmakers learn directly from local musicians, rappers, DJs, venue owners and audio engineers who are out working in the music industry every day, and the campers bring that experience back in the form of lessons, games, workshops and conversation. At Girls Rock Denver, first-time musicians get to learn how to play an instrument and are given the tools to smash gender stereotypes, all in the same place.

It's easy to throw a bunch of performers on a bill and call it a show, but Boombaptricks isn't about the quick route. The curated monthly gathering intentionally blends comedy, music, fashion, activism and art on the same stage in an effort to bring folks together and get people in the audience talking — to each other and about social-justice issues. Conceived by production company 52Eighty Entertainment's LaRae Martinez, musician ILL Se7en and Corin Chavez of local theater company the Black Actors Guild, Boombaptricks began last October and has already seen great success, with national comics, local fashion houses and internationally known DJs and MCs taking part in the interactive show. Although co-founder Chavez passed away unexpectedly last October, just before the first edition of Boombaptricks, his collaborators marched on in his honor. A continuing tribute to the hardworking actor and teacher, Boombaptricks is already living up to its mission to be a bridge between entertainment and community activism.

Denver composer Nathan Hall was given a unique commission opportunity by the Denver Theatre District last summer. Over the course of two weeks, the composer took over Boettcher Hall with his Ghost Light installation, a sound collage meant to be experienced from within, right on the stage, while the musical and vibrational elements float around the listener. On special dates, Ghost Light also incorporated live performances, but the goal was always the same: to give audiences a chance to hear music the way players in an orchestra do. What a way to catch a vibe.

Though Blow Pony events originated in the Pacific Northwest, this inclusive party made its way to Denver just in time for PrideFest. Denver DJ and event organizer L.A. Zwicky joined forces with Blow Pony co-founder and DJ Airick X to launch Blow Pony Denver, a safe, judgment-free space focused on creating parties for the radically minded. Elevating the art and people of the global queer community, this shindig goes bigger and brighter than your average dance party, with genre-bending performances by up-and-coming superstars. Blow Pony Denver has billed itself as the place for "bears, cubs, chubs, dykes, hawks, cocks, twinks, pillow biters, club kids, queens and you." So what are you waiting for?

For fifteen years, Felony Misdemeanor (aka Theariale St. Cyr) has been honing her craft as a drag performer; twelve of those years have been spent here in Denver, far from her El Paso roots. In that time, her Colorado legs have grown strong (and shapely), and she shines as the gold standard for what a queen should be. With hair, makeup, body, costumes and heels always on point, Felony is confident, humble, irreverent, hilarious, beautiful, sexy, professional and, most of all, never boring. Her name may sound like trouble, but she's a blessing in disguise for our drag community.

When you're a firecracker, you start with a spark and go off with a bang — and one cherry bomb in particular rolled onto the Denver drag scene this year: Jessica L'Whor. Busting in like a young Madonna Ciccone, Jessica made short work of a long year, putting in the time and effort — not to mention the blood, sweat and mascara smears — to leave just as big of an impression on our town as a certain Material Girl left on the '80s. There isn't a stage in Denver that Jessica hasn't placed a high heel on, so where does a fiery, fresh face go from here? The sky's the limit.

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