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Our critics weigh in on local theater

Art. It's not hard to see why Yasmina Reza's play caused such a fuss when it appeared in Paris, London, New York, and just about everywhere else from the late 1990s onward. The tightly wound, bittersweet comedy in which three middle-aged friends, Yvan, Serge, and Marc, almost come to blows over a painting, is at one level about people's perceptions of art, and at another, the nature of human relationships. The Damien Hirstsize hype that surrounded the play a few years ago makes staging it today feel a bit like arriving at a costume ball just as the last guests are leaving, but SF Playhouse puts on a memorable afterparty. In many ways, Art is tailor-made for this company: Bill English, SF Playhouse's artistic director (who plays the role of Serge in the production), also happens to have designed some of the most stylish sets. The look for Art, which English created, is a study in clean angles and severe, understated elegance, like the interior of a Gucci store. The play is a wonderful chamber piece, too, perfect for performance in SF Playhouse's intimate yet airy space, by a trio of compelling actors. Keith Burkland is adorably shabby as the henpecked Yvan; dressed in a conservative blue pinstriped suit, Louis Parnell (Marc) is suitably outspoken and cynical; and English comes off as suave and ever so slightly smarmy as Serge, the dermatologist who buys the painting that sets the whole thing off. Director Robin Stanton's painterly blocking adds the final touch to this sublimely composed canvas. Through July 30 at SF Playhouse, 536 Sutter (between Powell and Mason), S.F. Tickets are $30; call 677-9596 or visit (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed July 6.

Doing Good. The San Francisco Mime Troupe's Doing Good takes its inspiration from John Perkins' controversial memoir Confessions of an Economic Hit Man. The book describes Perkins' years helping the U.S. government and multinational corporations coerce foreign leaders into serving U.S. foreign policy. The troupe's riff on Perkins' real-life John le Carréstyle thriller follows the lives of a young, white, middle-class American couple, James and Molly, and their complicity in the homeland's less-than-benign interests in nations as widespread as Ecuador, Iran, Indonesia, and Panama. To avoid military service in Vietnam in 1968, James marries Molly and the pair move to the remote village of Pobre, Ecuador, on Peace Corps business. Very soon, the couple's innocuous attempts at "doing good" through building schoolhouses and educating local women about childbirth are overtaken by the arrival of a major U.S. corporation, whose aim it is to bring Ecuador "out of the Dark Ages" by building infrastructure with loans calculated to cripple the local economy. Despite some snappy one-liners and the bombastic live musical accompaniment, there's unfortunately little of aesthetic merit in Doing Good to mitigate the terrifying obviousness of its bludgeoning message. Through Oct. 2 at various locations throughout Northern California. Tickets are free; call 285-1717 or visit (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed July 13.

Dostoevsky's The Grand Inquisitor. In the middle of Dostoevsky's novel The Brothers Karamazov, Ivan Karamazov recites a "poem in prose" of his own composition titled "The Grand Inquisitor." It is this strange story-within-a-story that Gary Graves has meticulously adapted for the stage in Central Works' deeply moving production Dostoevsky's The Grand Inquisitor. Set in Seville, Spain, at the height of the Spanish Inquisition, the play centers around the character of the Grand Inquisitor (Graves), a ruthless old man hellbent on maintaining control with the rack and the wheel. But when a stranger turns up who is reportedly able to perform miracles, the Inquisitor is forced to ask himself penetrating questions. Combining whiffs of church incense, intense lighting, an evocative set featuring a ponderous crucifix at its center, and a haunting soundscape of sacred choral music, the production works a mystical charm on all the senses. Though the pace sometimes feels slow, Graves brings sensitivity to the character of the Inquisitor, and David Skillman shows off multidexterous talents in a variety of roles. The hallowed surroundings of the Berkeley City Club no doubt will give the experience extra intensity. Through July 31 at the Berkeley City Club, 2315 Durant (at Ellsworth), Berkeley. Tickets are $9-25; call (510) 558-1381 or visit (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed June 15.

The Golden Hammer. By day Mark McGoldrick is a public defender. By night he's a raconteur. In The Golden Hammer, the storyteller/lawyer uses anecdotes from his life to explore the slippery nature of the U.S. justice system. McGoldrick's flowing narrative catapults the audience backward and forward through time. The evocative reconstruction of his days as a teenager in a small Southwestern town, working as a sketchy car mechanic's assistant, brings new meaning to the term "body shop." Juxtaposed with the ethical dilemmas of defending a man against accusations of child rape in his current professional role, McGoldrick's past casts a harsh, unsettling light on his present. Despite his sitting in one position throughout -- McGoldrick is wheelchair-bound owing to a spinal injury in his youth -- the performer's conversational delivery style generally maintains our interest. Still, the show feels a bit lifeless and meandering; McGoldrick swings his hammer around, but doesn't deliver much of a blow. Through July 31 at the Marsh, 1062 Valencia (at 22nd Street), S.F. Tickets are $15-22; call (800) 838-3006 or visit (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed July 13.

Hush Up, Sweet Charlotte. The Bette Davis vehicle Hush ... Hush, Sweet Charlotte was widely panned when it appeared on movie screens in 1964. But it's funny how time can transform even the trashiest of movies into a cult classic. The film tells the story of Charlotte Hollis (Davis), an aging Southern belle, who asks her cousin and only living relative, Miriam Deering (Olivia de Havilland), to come to town to help her prevent the family home from being torn down to make way for a new bridge. Continuously haunted by the events of a fateful night in 1927 when her lover, John Mayhew, was gruesomely and mysteriously decapitated, Charlotte is victimized by her lurid memories, the local community, and her cousin Miriam. Initially produced in 1994 at the Victoria Theatre and currently in revival at the Lorraine Hansberry, Hush Up, Sweet Charlotte, Matthew Martin's stage adaptation of the film, not only celebrates the movie as a pageant of glorious camp, but also gives it a gorgeous makeover by sending it up through the flamboyant theatrics of two divine drag artists. Martin (Davis/Charlotte) and Varla Jean Merman (de Havilland/Miriam) are very different kinds of drag queens. When you put two performers of such remarkably contrasting qualities onstage, the gulf separating them from each other, from the film star personas they play, and from the basic characters in the plot becomes extravagantly exaggerated. Laughter is the only way to make sense of it all. Unfortunately, laughter is hard to sustain over more than two hours of what essentially boils down to relentless B-movie spoof. By the time you read this review, Merman will have left the show for a summer gig in Provincetown, to be replaced by Arturo Galster. Galster has some big shoes to fill, in both the literal and figurative sense. It will be interesting to see what he makes of Miriam Deering. Through Aug. 31 at the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre, 620 Sutter (at Mason), S.F. Tickets are $27-32; call 474-8800 or visit (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed June 29.

Not a Genuine Black Man. It's not easy being green, but try being a black kid in San Leandro in the early '70s. When Brian Copeland got there -- just a few months after the Summer of Love, he points out -- it was one of the most viciously racist suburbs in America. Now it's officially the most diverse. "Take that, San Francisco," Copeland chides. He's earned that attitude, not just for going through his hell of growing up, but also for extracting from it such affirmative, hilarious stuff. Copeland's rightfully popular one-man show is wrought from pain and rage but never really succumbs to bitterness. "Is that black?" he asks, and proves that it is. Some of his best stereotype-busting material doesn't feel especially new, but it does feel good. Besides, it's the stereotypes that have passed their expiration dates: Copeland's title comes from an accusation flung at him by a cranky listener who called in to his KGO radio program. This show is his response. With help from declarative lighting and David Ford's direction, Copeland creates an affecting hybrid of the dramatic monologue and the rollicking stand-up act. Through July 30 at the Marsh, 1062 Valencia (at 22nd Street), S.F. Tickets are $15-22; call 826-5750 or visit (Jonathan Kiefer) Reviewed June 2, 2004.

The Thousandth Night. Conceived and written especially for virtuoso solo performer Ron Campbell more than a decade ago by writer Carol Wolf, The Thousandth Night takes us back to the Nazi occupation of France in World War II. In the cheerless waiting room of a run-down, provincial train station some 50 miles east of Paris, Guy de Bonheur, a member of a disbanded touring theater troupe arrested by the Nazis for "propagating subversive materials," tries to win over an impassive bunch of gendarmes with his storytelling skills. To prove his innocence to the guards while the derailed death-camp train is being fixed, de Bonheur maniacally improvises one-man versions of some of his company's most popular theatrical productions -- stage adaptations of tales taken from the ancient Central Asian story collection The Thousand and One Nights. Vibrating with the same intensity as he did in his previous solo show, R. Buckminster Fuller: The History (and Mystery) of the Universe, Campbell portrays de Bonheur and each of the 37 fairy-tale characters in the French thespian's stories as expertly as a juggler setting dozens of plates spinning inconceivably fast in the air on impossibly long, thin poles. Such is the tautness of Campbell's acting, Wolf's writing, and Jessica Kubzansky's direction that the audience is not only completely drawn into de Bonheur's antics, but also plays an unwitting role in deciding the man's fate. Through July 24 at the Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison (at Shattuck), Berkeley. Tickets are $38; call (510) 843-4822 or visit (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed July 6.

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? did for the American theater in 1962 what Shelagh Delaney's A Taste of Honey did for its British equivalent just four years previously. Products of the postwar fracture of traditional family values and gender roles, both plays sent shock waves across their respective cultural landscapes and changed the face of theater forever. But while these days Delaney's play is considered a period piece and rarely performed, Actors Theatre's production (along with, of course, the recent highly lauded Broadway revival starring Bill Irwin and Kathleen Turner) proves Virginia Woolf to be as fresh today as it was when Albee wrote it. The caustically funny and darkly depraved drama takes place over the course of a booze-soaked night at the university campus home of middle-aged history professor George (Christian Phillips) and his wife, Martha (Julia McNeal), as they play cat and mouse with each other and their newbie guests, the twentysomething biology professor Nick (Daniel Hart Donoghue) and his wife, Honey (Tara Donoghue). The claustrophobic atmosphere of Biz Duncan's living room set enhances the intensity of the couples' relentless "fun and games." Combining incisive, rhythmic direction by Keith Phillips and Kenneth Vandenberg with crisp performances by all four cast members (Tara Donoghue is especially pathetic and hilarious as the "thin-hipped" Honey), Actors Theatre's Virginia Woolf expertly mines the complex nature of marital relationships. Through Sept. 3 at the Actors Theatre, 533 Sutter (between Powell and Mason), S.F. Tickets are $10-30; call 296-9179 or visit (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed June 22.


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