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Our critics weigh in on local theater

Menopause the Musical. Set in Bloomingdale's department store, this play unites four contrasting female characters — an Iowa housewife, an executive, a soap star, and a hippie — through the combined forces of cut-price lingerie and hormone replacement therapy. Singing doctored versions of 1960s and '70s pop favorites like "Stayin' Alive" ("Stayin' Awake") and "Puff, the Magic Dragon" ("Puff, My God I'm Draggin'"), the ladies potter from floor to floor, sharing their worst menopausal hang-ups as they try on clothes, rifle through sales racks, and run in and out of the store's many strategically placed powder rooms. Although Menopause is entertaining and energetically performed, it's unabashedly tacky. An ode to the delights of masturbation, sung down a pink microphone to an adaptation of the Beach Boys' "Good Vibrations," for instance, makes one think that all that's missing from this (very) belated bachelorette party is a male stripper. And as much as the show makes its largely 40-plus female audience feel more comfortable about getting older, it doesn't go far enough. Menopause is euphemistically referred to as "the change," which just seems to reinforce taboos. And its obsession with shopping, sex, and cellulite makes Menopause feel a lot like a geriatric issue of Cosmo. Rather than empowering women, the musical ends up underscoring clichés. In an open-ended run at Theatre 39, Pier 39, Beach & Embarcadero, S.F. Tickets are $46.50; call 433-3939 or visit (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed Jan. 11, 2006.

The Pillowman. Unraveling in some unspecified, vaguely mittel-European "totalitarian state," Anglo-Irish dramatist Martin McDonagh's 2003 play follows what happens when a couple of police officers interrogate a writer named Katurian Katurian about the relationship between his ghoulish fairy tales (in which, almost invariably, "some poor little kid gets fucked up") and the gruesome murders of three local children. As told through director Les Waters' pulse-pumping production for Berkeley Rep, McDonagh's vicious little yarn plays itself out like a bedtime story of the most frightening and funny kind. The faded splendor of Antje Ellermann's police interrogation room set, Russell H. Champa's sickly, lurching lights, and Obadiah Eaves' eerie soundscape help to make this Pillowman pungent. As Katurian and his older brother, Michal, respectively, Erik Lochtefeld and Matthew Maher achieve a pristine balance between savagery and tenderness. Meanwhile, Tony Amendola and Andy Murray's turns as cops Tupolski and Ariel combine a brutality akin to the Officer's in Kafka's horrifying torture story "In the Penal Colony" with a touch of the frazzled, sitcom dad. The upshot of the experience of seeing the production is a profound sense of awe at the potential of theater as a storytelling medium. Through Mar. 11 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2025 Addison St (at Shattuck,) Berkeley. Tickets are $45-61; call (510) 647 2949 or visit (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed Jan 31.

Rose. This sweeping journey across the life of one woman — and, through her, the life of Old World Jews — treats us to a handful of clear-eyed ideas that are both beautiful and rarely tackled on stage. What do the survivors of World War II, now old men and women, do with the anger that once protected them and now haunts their lives? Who, if anyone, gets to decide who is "Jewish enough" to lead Israel into the future? That these issues are so pressing makes it all the more frustrating that this 2 1/2-hour solo show is at least a half-hour too long. Bay Area favorites Naomi Newman and director Joan Mankin bring out many of the lovely, arresting little moments created by playwright Martin Sherman (wisely cutting out many more), and the final twist in Rose's tale packs a punch. But how startling and affecting this play would have been if we spent considerably less time in the nooks and crannies of Rose's life and dove head first into the heart of her grief. Through Feb. 11 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View; and Feb. 15-25 at The Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Ave. (at Martin Luther King), Berkeley. Tickets are $15-44; call 522-0786 or visit (Molly Rhodes) Reviewed Jan. 10.

Shopping! The Musical. Some theater types want to be Hamlet; others want to be Liza Minnelli. The smiling, hardworking performers in this new musical revue definitely fall into the latter category. Lyricist-composer Morris Bobrow uses his infectious, irreverent humor to great effect as he pays homage to the highs and lows of our compellingly crass commercial culture. He uses the small, cramped theater in a straightforward manner — four center-stage stools and an amusing backdrop provide the set. The accomplished accompanist Ben Keim keeps things lively on one side of the stage behind an upright piano. The actors lead us through songs that bring to mind Jerry Seinfeld's sharp observations on mundane modern life: "Shopping in Style" extols the virtues of Costco, and "Serious Shopping" imagines a man trying to buy lettuce from a riotously over-the-top grocery cult. The musical runs just over an hour, yet it still has a few rough spots. The mid-show sketch "Checking Out" gives us a limp comedic premise that we've seen before on sub-par sitcoms, and the piece "5 & 10" is a mix of awkward nostalgia and pitch problems. Nevertheless, this is a clever collection of tunes performed with an unabashedly cheesy enthusiasm that would make Liza proud. In an open-ended run at the Shelton Theater, 533 Sutter (between Powell and Mason), S.F. Tickets are $25-29; call (800) 838-3006 or visit (Frank Wortham) Reviewed June 14, 2006.

Three Seconds in the Key. Deb Margolin's baseball-themed play is as much about sport as it is about life. Based on the author's own struggle against cancer, the drama explores how a middle-aged single mother overcomes Hodgkin's disease with a little help from the New York Knicks. Over the course of one long two-hour act, realities nudge each other as the woman shuffles in her pajamas between her exhausted existence with her 8-year-old son and a hallucinogenic, TV-inspired fantasy world of conversations and card games with the Knicks' troubled star player. The text offers fleeting moments of beauty, and is also, at times, disarmingly funny. But a dope-induced haze soon settles over the play like snow over a hockey rink. Conversations between the woman and the Knicks player about the differences between blacks and Jews seem like little more than excuses to create dramatic tension, and intermittent prayer meeting scenes feel particularly random. But thanks to director Leigh Fondakowski (The Laramie Project, The People's Temple) and the slam-dunk cast, the production allows us to forget — almost — Margolin's rambling text. From Bill English's black-boxÐdefying set (which includes part of a basketball court) to the cast's choreographic precision (which allows five hulking blokes bouncing a ball around in Knicks gear to look as if they're dancing Swan Lake), the production delivers a powerful message for sports and life: It's possible to overcome bad odds with teamwork. Through Feb. 17 at S.F. Playhouse, 533 Sutter (between Powell and Mason), S.F. Tickets are $36; call 677-9596 or visit (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed Jan 24.

Tings Dey Happen. Based on his experiences as a Fulbright scholar studying oil politics in Nigeria (American's fifth biggest oil supplier), solo performer Dan Hoyle drills deep beneath the surface of media hype to help us understand the forces at work behind the oil-rich country's escalating cycle of corruption and violence. On his journey backward and forward between Nigeria's oil capital, Port Harcourt, and the lawless hinterlands of the Niger Delta, Hoyle — with acute attention to physical detail (and an ear for pidgin) — embodies a soft-spoken, 23-year-old rebel sniper whose chief desire is to obtain a university degree; a warlord armed with four cellphones and a family photo album, like Marlon Brando in The Godfather; and a nerdy Japanese member of the Young Diplomats Club in Lagos working on a thesis about the Tanzanian cashew nut, among many others. Like Anna Deavere Smith, one of the most famous practitioners of this style of show, Hoyle takes a journalistic approach. But unlike Smith, whose slavish impersonation of the speech nuances of her interviewees seems more stenography than artistry, Hoyle filters his Nigerian experience through his vivid imagination, creating full-blooded characters that are as theatrical as they are real. Through March 31 at the Marsh, 1062 Valencia (between 21st and 22nd Sts.), S.F. Tickets are $15-22; call 826-5750 or visit (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed Jan. 10.

All the Great Books (Abridged)
Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts, 1601 Civic (at Locust), Walnut Creek, 925-943-7469.
Ambition Facing West
Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro (at Mercy), Mountain View, 650-903-6000.
American $uicide
The Thick House, 1695 18th St. (at Arkansas), 401-8081.

Bakla Show
Bindlestiff Studio, 185 Sixth St. (at Howard), 974-1167.
BATS: Sunday Players
Fort Mason, Bldg. B, Marina & Buchanan, 474-6776.
Beach Blanket Babylon
Club Fugazi, 678 Green (at Powell), 421-4222.
Beyond Therapy
Shelton Theater, 533 Sutter (at Powell), 433-1226.
Big City Improv
Shelton Theater, 533 Sutter (at Powell), 433-1226.
The Birthday Party
Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison (at Shattuck), Berkeley, 510-843-4822.
San Jose Center for the Performing Arts, 255 Almaden (at Park), San Jose, 408-277-5277.
Chekhov 2: Four Early Farces
New Langton Arts, 1246 Folsom (at Eighth St.), 626-5416.
Crying in Public & Sally: MIA
CounterPULSE, 1310 Mission (at Ninth St.), 626-2060.
Dead Certain
Off-Market Theater, 965 Mission (at Fifth St.), 896-6477.
Dying Gaul
New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness (at Market), 861-8972.
Emperor Norton, The Musical
Shelton Theater, 533 Sutter (at Powell), 433-1226.
Farm Boys
New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness (at Market), 861-8972.
Off-Market Studio, 965 Mission (at Fifth St.), 896-6477.
Hedda Gabler
American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary (at Mason), 749-2228.
Improv Revolution
Off-Market Theater, 965 Mission (at Fifth St.), 896-6477.
Jersey Boys
Curran Theatre, 445 Geary (between Taylor and Mason), 551-2000.
Joe Turner's Come and Gone
Lorraine Hansberry Theatre, 620 Sutter (at Mason), 474-8800.
Legally Blonde
Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor (at Market), 512-7770.
Long Day's Journey Into Night
San Jose Repertory Theatre, 101 Paseo de San Antonio (at South Third St.), San Jose, 408-367-7255.
Love Bites the Hand That Feeds It
Theatre Rhinoceros, 2926 16th St. (at South Van Ness), 861-5079.
The Love Edition
Bindlestiff Studio, 185 Sixth St. (at Howard), 974-1167.
The Magnificence of the Disaster
The Marsh, 1062 Valencia (at 22nd St.), 826-5750.
Florence Gould Theater, 34th Ave. & Clement (at Palace of the Legion of Honor), 863-3330.
Murder at the Next Stage
The Next Stage, 1620 Gough (at Bush), Trinity Episcopal Church, 333-6389.
Odd by Nature II: The Stranger Journey
Exit Theatre, 156 Eddy (at Taylor), 673-3847.
New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness (at Market), 861-8972.
Pleasure and Pain
Magic Theatre, Fort Mason, Bldg. D, Marina & Buchanan, 441-8822.
Traveling Jewish Theatre, 470 Florida (at Mariposa), 285-8282.
Serve by Expiration
Exit Stage Left, 156 Eddy (between Taylor & Mason), 673-3847.
"Viva Variety"
Buriel Clay Theater, 762 Fulton (at Webster), for more information call 863-0741.


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