Reviewed: Water by the Spoonful, Murder Ballad, Suddenly Last Summer (All Closing), Three More

The fall theater season is under way, and as new productions roll out, others will close this weekend — including Buntport's Middle Aged People Sitting in Boxes and Edge's Murder Ballad. Keep reading for our capsule reviews of shows currently on stage.
The Glass Menagerie. The room, with its floor of lighted squares, seems small and isolated in darkness. It’s edged by the black-metal railings of the fire escape. This is St. Louis, where author Tennessee Williams grew up, during the impoverished years of the 1930s, and The Glass Menagerie is autobiographical, a memory play — the events it shows supposedly as uncertain as memory. The story is told by Tom Wingfield,Williams’s alter ego, a young man trudging daily to a dead-end job in order to support Amanda, his one-time Southern belle mother, and his frail sister, Laura, who suffers a limp and some unnamed psychological weakness. Until one evening a moment of something close to hope enters the Wingfields’enclosed life in the shape of a Gentleman Caller for Laura: the affable Jim O’Connor, one of Tom’s fellow workers. From Tom’s first monologue, as performed by Aubrey Deeker, we’re alerted to the fact that the Denver Center for the Performing Arts Theatre Company’s production of this venerated 1944 play will not be the usual gentle, nostalgic one. Deeker’s Tom is less a lost young poet than a trickster, caustic and angry, as histrionic in his own way as Amanda is in hers. This may be a valid take on the role, but it sacrifices audience empathy. Amanda is a performer, too, both as written and as Kathleen McCall plays her. She’s stuck in a remembered past of suitors, elegance and financial ease, a past she evokes constantly when she’s not nagging her children and insisting Tom help get his sister married off. Amanda is usually seen as a destructive figure, but Kathleen McCall’s version is more lost than destructive. This underplays Amanda’s very real strength of will and gives Tom little to struggle against. As a result, he seems doubly churlish for abandoning her and Laura.The best performances come from Pedlow, whose Laura is gentle, understated and affecting, and John Skelley’s warm and kindly Gentleman Caller.The Denver Center has mounted a respect-worthy production that provides food for thought—but little emotional resonance. Presented by the Denver Center through October 16, Ricketson Theatre. Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, Read our full review of The Glass Menagerie.

God of Carnage. God of Carnage features four people in a beautifully appointed living room. Alan and Annette Raleigh have come to the home of Michael and Veronica Novak to discuss a schoolyard fight—the Raleighs’ son Benjamin hit the Novaks’ son Henry with a stick when Henry refused to allow Benjamin to join his gang, knocking out two of the boy’s teeth. Everyone is determined to deal with the event in a low-key civilized manner. These are upper-class people, after all, and very wealthy. You know what has to happen next: The oh-so-civilized dialogue will spiral into insults, chaos, rage and childish name calling—and yes all that does happen, with the complete breakdown of civilization in this elegant room symbolized by the unexpected spew of vomit landing on a precious out-of-print Kokoschka catalogue. So much for liberal, cultured Veronica’s love of art and her concern for suffering in Africa. So much for the delicious pear and apple clafouti she served. I originally thought argument would break out as each set of parents fiercely defended their young, but no one seems particularly concerned about these little boys; they’re more interested in jockeying for a winning position. Throughout the evening, Alan breaks away from the discussion to talk on his cell phone about a topic clearly more important to him than his family. His law firm is handling the defense of a drug called Antril that may be dangerous and is produced by a pharmaceutical client. When we find out Antril has been prescribed for Michael’s mother, we expect some moralistic bullets to fly. But Michael seems to care about his mother about as much as he does his son. Playwright Yasmin Reza is often praised for revealing the hypocrisy and vacuity at the heart of upper-middle-class life, but that’s not really much of a revelation. The characters and their motivations in Carnage don’t make a lot of sense. It’s hard to believe a pleasant, laid-back husband would morph into a chest-thumping Neanderthal within moments as Michael does or a polished wealth management specialist like Annette would turn into a briefcase wielding fury. But ultimately who cares of there’s a moral vacuum at the center of this play? God of Carnage is ferociously clever and—under Len Matheo’s direction—so well-acted and so funny you end up hiccupping with laughter time and time again. Presented by Miners Alley Playhouse through October 2, 1224 Washington Avenue, Golden, 303-935-3044, Read the full review of God of Carnage.

Middle Aged People Sitting in Boxes. A clothesline on which tops and bras are hung spans the stage. Other than that, the set consists of four shrouded forms that are eventually unshrouded to reveal four middle-aged people sitting in boxes – if you consider Buntport Theater Company's Brian Colonna, Erin Rollman, Hannah Duggan and Erik Edborg to be middle-aged. But as Rollman points out, middle age is a shifting boundary, hard to define. The characters can hear and speak to each other, but they can’t touch through the Plexiglas barriers. In the box on the right, Colonna struggles with that ubiquitous modern horror: trying to get something done by phone. He can’t access the site he needs online because it no longer recognizes him. But when, after a long wait, he actually gets a human being named Angela on the phone, she can’t help him, either — because the system says he doesn’t exist. In her box, Duggan occupies herself with her job, which involves classifying data. On the other side of her, Rollman organizes a 25-year high-school reunion on Facebook. And then there’s Edborg, who seems to have moved into a new place and is trying to organize his belongings. This is hard, because he’s a hoarder and has also mislabeled his stuff. There are a lot of lists and a lot of attempts on the characters’ part to categorize. And the idea of order is all mixed up with the idea of data – how we acquire it as well as how we sort it – and that leads to talk about generations: X-ers and Y-ers and Networlders, all of whom view the world in different ways because of the different ways in which the world comes to them. But the cast also points out that dividing human beings into generations with arbitrary cut-off points is deceptive. Since this is a Buntport production, everything is hilariously askew, and the show is both filled with absurdities and dizzyingly clever. Middle Aged People does communicate a sense of loss: These people are boxed in, after all. Still, there’s a willingness to embrace the unknowable – and even magic in the shape of a little one-horned fairground goat passed off as a unicorn. It may have been just a sad, sickly animal, but there’s something about the idea of a unicorn and our willingness to accept it that transcends lists and data and frees the imagination. Presented by Buntport through September 24 at Buntport, 717 Lipan Street., 720-946-1388, Read the original review of Middle Aged People from April 2015.

Murder Ballad. The Edge Theater Company has never staged a musical during its six years, nor has Edge artistic director Rick Yaconis ever directed one — until now, when Edge is roaring into the new season with a scintillating, pop-rock work called Murder Ballad. This isn’t a standard musical. The small-scale, sung-through offering isn’t charming, nor does it feature big, fake smiles, happily dancing feet or love songs. The story is pretty much a cliché: Sexy Sarah has a passionate relationship with bar owner Tom. They break up. She finds solace and marital stability with gentle, responsible Michael, and the couple, along with their child, Frankie, live a peaceful, stable life in an Upper West Side apartment. But then, bored with the routine of daily life, Sarah finds her way back to Tom’s brawny arms. The story of a woman torn between a masculine stud and a kindly husband is a staple of every kind of genre, from cheap romance novels to Westerns to folk ballads. What makes this show electric is the knowledge conveyed by the title and confirmed early on by the Narrator that someone is going to die — which means we spend the entire evening in a state of mild titillation, wondering who. While the three lovers wallow in passionate song about their emotions, the Narrator provides the thread that keeps things going, as well as an ironic commentary that reminds you that this is a story. The Narrator seems a metaphorical figure, a mocking gremlin rather than an actual woman, though we eventually learn that she is flesh and blood. The running time is just 85 minutes, the space is so intimate that we all seem to be breathing the same air, and even though the characters have little depth and the plot is obvious, that raucous, high-energy (though far from memorable) score propels us from moment to moment. Yaconis deserves all kinds of kudos for this terrific cast. Also for the fact that he, along with musical director Jason Tyler Vaughn and sound designers Kenny Storms and Tom Quinn, have fitted the music so perfectly to the venue. Most of all, he deserves credit for a willingness to challenge himself and experiment, in the process presenting some of the most intriguing work around to local audiences. Presented by Edge Theater Company through September 25, 1560 Teller Street, Lakewood, 303-232-0363, Read the full review of Murder Ballad.
Suddenly, Last Summer. New Orleans grande dame Violet Venable is interviewing Dr. Cukrowicz. A young researcher, he is setting up a lobotomy clinic and needs money, money she’s willing to supply if he’ll agree to lobotomize her niece, Catharine. Catharine was on vacation in Europe with Violet’s son, Sebastian, when he died, and she has been “babbling” about his death in ways Violet finds unendurable: “You’ve got to cut that hideous story out of her brain,” she insists. Sebastian was a poet, whose one poem a year was always written after his vacation with his mother, until a stroke rendered her unable to travel to Cabeza de Logo, and Catharine became his companion. He was chaste, and once wanted to be a monk, Violet says. The second act is pretty much swallowed up by Catharine’s “babbling,” and her narrative is ugly, bloody and revelatory. It reveals Sebastian less as a candidate for sainthood than a fastidious, forty-year-old predator who used both his mother and Catharine as bait for young men. Suddenly, Last Summer, a mixture of autobiography, Gothic fantasy and pure nightmare currently being produced by Spotlight Theatre, could only emerge from a brain as fevered as that of Tennessee Williams. Written in 1958, this isn’t the best of his works; it feels fragmentary and the ending truncated. But it does contain bursts of stunning beauty and long stretches of wonderful poetry, as well as all of Williams’s customary obsessions: art, mutilation, greed and inheritance, homosexuality. Almost every element carries multiple meanings — metaphorical, mystical, sexual. Some of the symbolism seems overwrought or obvious. At other times, the metaphors resonate. According to Violet, Dr. Cukrowicz’s Polish last name means sugar. Like Sebastian, he dresses in an impeccable white suit. The subtext is insistent, and it’s up to us to interpret it. Williams’s worldview is lurid, but so was the America he knew. His own mother had his disturbed sister Rose lobotomized, and he never stopped grieving for her. And in those days, homosexuality was a dark, dangerous secret. After years of bitter repression, Williams flaunted his. Sebastian represents both martyrdom and a depraved soul punished for unspeakable sins. Sometimes the best evenings are provided by smaller theaters that make up for their lack of resources by choosing daring and fascinating scripts and casting them brilliantly, and that’s exactly what Spotlight director Bernie Cardell has done. Presented by Spotlight Theatre Company through September 24 at the John Hand Theater, 7653 East First Place, 720-530-4596. Read the full review of Suddenly, Last Summer.
Water by the Spoonful. Water by the Spoonful is the second in a trilogy of plays by Quiara Alegría Hudes being shown as part of Curious Theatre Company’s serial storytelling project. All three plays in the trilogy deal with an Iraq vet, a man from a Puerto Rican background now recovering from a war wound, working in a Philadelphia sandwich shop and trying to steady his memory-plagued life.  Here we watch the interactions between Elliot and his cousin Yazmin as they deal with the death of his surrogate mother, Ginny, whose warm, healing presence suffused the previous play. These interactions supply a kind of framework for what at first seems an unrelated plot: a group of recovering drug addicts conversing on a chatline monitored by Odessa, herself a recovering addict. Their stories sometimes echo themes we hear in Elliot’s story. All of them are lonely, feel exiled and are reaching for companionship and comfort. It’s only later that we discover the link between the two narratives and a series of wrenching developments follows. The writing is subtle and fluid, and Hudes has created characters more multi-faceted and vivid than those in the previous plays. Most of the acting is excellent, particularly Gabriella Cavallero as caring Odessa; Abner Genece as the wise, apparently resigned chat grouper nicknamed Chutes&Ladders; and Jenna Moll Reyes playing Orangutan, a Japanese adoptee with yearnings for the homeland she never knew. But this production, the season opener, is in some ways oddly muted — too much shadow, too many dark shapes of furniture on stage that seem to dwarf the actors. A supernatural occurrence is handled clumsily, and there’s an overall lack of intimacy that keeps us a little too distanced from the characters and their urgent concerns. Presented by Curious Theatre Company through October 15 at 1080 Acoma Street, 303-623-0524, Read the full review of Water by the Spoonful.

For more theater productions, see our calendar listings.