A Propos of the Wet Snow. There is a lovely moment to start the second act of this play inspired by Fyodor Dostoyevsky's Notes from the Underground that hints at what the show could have been: A man returns to his lover and relates the horror of seeing a coffin carried from a basement as the two stroke and hold each other in the midst of a video rendition of falling snow. Alas, this kind of simplicity is rare in the rest of the 2-hour-and-15-minute musing on the state of humanity in the world. In the first act, there are so many profound ideas and so many slightly sketched characters all doled out to us in stops and starts by actor and director Oleg Liptsin that it is hard to make sense of it all. No doubt Liptsin and his theater partner Ai-Cheng Ho are great admirers of Dostoyevsky, and they should be credited for choosing to punctuate the Russian writer's dense ideas with Kevin Quennesson's quirky and sometimes intriguing video technology. Yet there is still much work needed to turn the insights of one of Russia's great novelists into a compelling experience on the stage. Through Oct. 13 at Phoenix Theatre, 414 Mason, Sixth Floor (between Post and Geary), S.F. Oct. 18–Nov. 3 at Metal Shop Theatre, 2425 Stuart (behind Willard Middle School), Berkeley. Tickets are $20-30; call 440-6163 or visit www.phoenixtheatresf.org. (Molly Rhodes) Reviewed Oct. 3.
Big Co. Boxcar Theatre's new show tells a story that has been immortalized many times in the past, from Joni Mitchell's 1970s folk-rock song "Big Yellow Taxi" to Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott's 2004 documentary The Corporation. The plot juxtaposes two businesses — a tiny, family-run Russian deli, and the massive multinational franchise next door. As Nikolai Borísov (Nick Olivero) and his sister Sonya (Sarah Korda) struggle to makes ends meet and keep their customers satisfied in an increasingly hostile, Starbucks-and-McDonald's-driven marketplace, the marketing director at Bhigge Company, Mr. Mann (Peter Matthews), and his environmentally astute assistant Jenny Doh (Dana Lau) strategize about how best to fulfill their organization's corporate responsibility mandate while maintaining a staggering profit margin. With its upfront messages and scenes loaded with Internet search engine–quality research, the production feels at times like a college essay in theatrical form. It could also use some dramaturgical honing in places. Yet Boxcar's heartfelt, humorous journey into the black soul of corporate America puts an interesting twist on the agitprop theater tradition by showing us the downsides and upsides of big and small businesses alike. Through Oct. 20 at Boxcar Theatre, 505 Natoma (at Fourth Street), S.F. Tickets are free; call 776-1747 or visit www.boxcartheatre.org. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed Oct. 3.
Countercoup. Over the past 15 years, the Marsh Theater has developed a successful system of attracting solo artists or would-be performers to develop their life stories for the stage. With a combination of in-house directors (David Ford and Charlie Varon), classes and venues to preview smaller sections of developing work, and a main stage to show off the best full-length material, the Marsh has created a hybrid style of theater that is best described as long-form storytelling. The resulting work is not always slick or completely polished and is often performed by storytellers fairly new to the stage, but the experience is always an intimate look into another person's life. Countercoup's writer and performer Mark McGoldrick did not train as an actor — in fact, he works as a public defender in the East Bay — but when he rolls onstage in the wheelchair he is confined to, he has quite a story to tell. His rebellious youth of drinking and fighting was cut short when an accident paralyzed him from the waist down. Much of this play focuses on his wonderfully detailed struggle in rehabilitation and the stormy relationships with his family and a good friend. As an actor, McGoldrick is still discovering the material and often indulges a few beats too long or ventures into slightly clichéd material. But as a storyteller he imbues his history with a rough, casual poetry and a soulful wisdom that an actor could never bring. Through Oct. 20 at the Marsh, 1062 Valencia (between 21st and 22nd streets), S.F. Tickets are $15-35; call 800-838-3006 or visit www.themarsh.org. (Nathaniel Eaton) Reviewed Oct. 3.
Heartbreak House. The plot of George Bernard Shaw's strange and sprawling critique of society's apathy in the face of war — if it can be called a plot, for practically nothing happens over the space of three hours — follows a day in the lives of a middle-class English family and their various houseguests and hangers-on. What potential there is for conflict is constantly undermined as these well-educated, early-20th-century Britishers do little else but lounge about on sofas discussing sleeping arrangements, their latest romantic intrigues, and Shakespeare. About two-thirds of director Les Waters' spacious yet taut production spine-chillingly succeeds in making us feel uncomfortable with our own leisured, apathetic lives. Annie Smart's heavenly Frank Lloyd Wright–inspired set reminds us that we live with our heads in the clouds, while the all-around seductive performances (even from David Chandler's coffin-faced businessman, Boss Mangan) are so likeable that we can't help but see ourselves in Shaw's lazy, disreputable characters. Yet just when we're feeling so thoroughly chastised by Shaw's drama that we're considering flying to Washington and impaling ourselves on the railings outside the White House in protest against the war in Iraq, Waters' production abruptly changes gear. By staging the final scenes in a barren, post-Holocaustlike twilight, Waters certainly captures the essence of Shaw's doomsday message. But the jolting mood swing unfortunately allows the spirit of revolution to slip quietly away from us. Through Oct. 14 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2025 Addison (at Shattuck), Berkeley. Tickets are $33-69; call 510-647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org. (C.V.) Reviewed Sept. 19.
Song of Myself. It's easy to lump Walt Whitman in with all those other 19th-century writers who mistook themselves for invisible eyeballs and meandered aimlessly through the woods reciting passages from the Bhagavad Gita. But if anyone can talk us into reclaiming the American bard, it's John O'Keefe. The playwright/performer's abbreviated version of "Song of Myself" — Whitman's fecund ode to the pleasures of loafing — is an art song in spoken form. Poised halfway between being a straight recitation and an imaginative interpretation of Whitman's poem, the performance plays with our intellect and emotions like an intoxicating piece of music. From the euphoric whoop of the opening line to the melting breath of the final thought as it dissolves into darkness, O'Keefe takes us through many keys, major and minor, as he explores Whitman's universe. At times, the poem races hectically forward, the performer lurching after the words like someone fielding simultaneous calls on a cellphone. Elsewhere during the performance, the mood is more reflective. O'Keefe cozies up to individual audience members, creating a bond of intimacy with us through Whitman's words. The poet's erratic, stream-of-consciousness style may be easier to digest while reading privately than while listening to someone recite his lines out loud. But thanks to the vitality and variety of O'Keefe's approach, it doesn't take much for us to feel a sense of affinity for Whitman's celebration of himself. Through Oct. 20. at the Marsh, 1062 Valencia (between 21st and 22nd streets), S.F. Tickets are $15-25; call 800-838-3006 or visit www.themarsh.org. (C.V.) Reviewed June 13.
Sweeney Todd. It was Stephen Sondheim's intention to simply write a dark, witty musical revenge fantasy in the tradition of the Parisian Grand Guignol, famed for its over-the-top graphic violence. The original 1979 Broadway production of Sweeney Todd starring Angela Lansbury had massive sets and a 27-piece orchestra, and though it was a big hit, it wasn't what the composer visualized. But this reimagined production, direct from Broadway and with much of the same stellar cast, is, in Sondheim's words, "the closest to what I originally wanted to do." The incomparably talented 10-person cast, using a range of instruments from cellos to xylophones, plays every note of the complex score, all the while acting and singing Sondheim's lyrical overlaps and rounds. There's a purity in this all-hands-on-deck storytelling that suits this tale of a wrongly imprisoned man seeking revenge with the swipe of his barber's blade. From the first moment when Todd (a haunted and brilliant David Hess) emerges from a black plywood coffin and joins forces with Mrs. Lovett (Tony Award winner Judy Kaye), the macabre tone is set for the mayhem that includes cannibalism, straitjackets, insane asylums, and countless buckets of blood. This production and its cast also manage to transcend all the pandemonium and dare to tell more of a soulful story of love and loss, and the wreckage that can ensue in a life consumed with revenge. Through Oct. 14 at A.C.T., 415 Geary (between Mason and Taylor streets), S.F. Tickets are $30-82; call 749-2228 or visit www.act-sfbay.org. (N.E.) Reviewed Sept. 19.