Bulrusher. Set in 1955 in Boonville, California, Eisa Davis' Pulitzer Prize–nominated drama takes place during one of the most turbulent periods in modern American history, from the racially provoked murder of black 14-year-old Emmett Till to black activist Rosa Parks' refusal to give up her bus seat to a white man. But racial issues, at least on the surface, couldn't be further removed from the world of Davis' play. A coming-of-age story set in small-town California about a young, black woman with mysterious powers, the play explores the tensions that lie beneath even the most seemingly "color-blind" of communities. In Margo Hall and Ellen Sebastian Chang's expressively directed production, Shotgun Players turns the theater into something akin to a Californian "Land that Time Forgot." With its layers of wooden decking, secluded corners shaded by thick foliage, and trickling waterways, Lisa Clark's lost kingdom of a set design deposits us in a secluded world. Self-absorbed, often introverted performances from the cast work with the setting to create an experience that feels entirely intimate. Eventually, though, the increasingly melodramatic narrative disrupts the sacrosanct space. While the heavy-handed plotting reveals some hard political and social realities about life in even the most apparently benign of communities, it also inadvertently swallows Davis' evocative use of "Boontling" (the local dialect) and turns what was, at the start of the play, an extraordinary set of characters and circumstances, into rather ordinary fare by the end. Through Oct. 28 at The Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby (at Martin Luther King Jr. Way), Berkeley. Tickets are $17-25; call 510-841-6500 or visit www.shotgunplayers.org. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed Oct. 10.
Holding the Man. Though this adaptation of Australian Timothy Conigrave's memoir treads a lot of familiar territory – gay men in the '80s struggling with relationships! And AIDS! – there is a sweetness and honesty suffused throughout the production that makes it often charming to watch. As Tim and John, the couple at the center of the story whose trials and triumphs we follow, Ben Randle and Bradly Mena have an open warmth that makes you root for them from the get-go. Director Matthew Graham Smith also keeps the action running smoothly on Jon Wai-keung Lowe's ever-rotating set. The two-and-a-half-hour play loses some of its steam after the intermission: Tim's journey through acting school feels underdeveloped, and all the ins and outs of his relationship with John, while well observed, do not always move the story along. Touches like Australian accents and Scott Ludwig's haunting puppets work well at some points and at others feel tacked on and distracting. But there is good reason Tommy Murphy won Australia's most prestigious playwriting award for his adaptation. The heart with which Smith and his ensemble embrace the tale reflects the humor and resiliency that the community embraced when it first started fighting back against AIDS. Through Nov. 4 at New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness (at Market), S.F. Tickets are $22-34; call 861-8972 or visit www.nctcsf.org. (Molly Rhodes) Reviewed Oct. 17.
Six Degrees of Separation. It seems entirely unfair to blame a show for not being "New York" enough, as if somehow only New York held the key to good American theater. And yet what was missing from SF Playhouse's ambitious and heartfelt production of John Guare's beautiful play was the sense of watching a privileged, detached New York woman find connection and meaning in the most unlikely of places. As Ouisa and her husband Flan, Susi Damilano and Robert Parsons could just as easily be a wealthy couple living the good life in Marin. They capture the couple's charm and air of easy entitlement, yet they lack the bite and the drive people thrive on in New York high society. It is this ambition and neediness that we should see mirrored – and ultimately threatened – by a young black man who shows up on their doorstep claiming to be a school friend of their children. The production has many fine and funny moments in its crisp 90 minutes. But because Damilano and Parsons never exude the Manhattanites' darker side, the final moments of possible redemption never feel fully earned. Through Nov. 17 at SF Playhouse, 533 Sutter (at Powell), S.F. Tickets are $38; call 415-677-9597 or visit www.sfplayhouse.org.(M.R.) Reviewed Oct.10.
Theater & Opera
After the Quake: Berkeley Repertory School of Theatre, 2071 Addison (at Shattuck), Berkeley, 510-647-2972.
Amerikana: The Musical: Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theater, 700 Howard (at Third St.), 978-2787.
Appomattox: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness (at Grove), 864-3330.
Attrition: Exit Theatre on Taylor, 277 Taylor (at Ellis), 673-3847.
Autumnal OUTing: Theatre Rhinoceros, 2926 16th St. (at South Van Ness), 861-5079.
BATS: Sunday Players: Fort Mason, Bldg. B (Marina & Buchanan), 474-6776.
Big City Improv: Shelton Theater, 533 Sutter (at Powell), 433-1226.
Blues in the Night: Post Street Theatre, 450 Post (at Mason), 321-2900.
The Bluest Eye: Lorraine Hansberry Theatre, 620 Sutter (at Mason), 474-8800.
Camino Real: Actors Theatre San Francisco, 855 Bush (at Taylor), 345-1287.
The Color Purple: The Musical About Love: Orpheum Theater, 1192 Market (at Eighth St.), 512-7770.
Creature: Magic Theatre, Fort Mason, Bldg. D (Marina & Buchanan), 441-8822.
Creepshow Live: Dark Room Theater, 2263 Mission (at 18th St.), 401-7987.
D'Arc, Woman on Fire: Shotwell Studios, 3252A 19th St. (at Folsom), 289-2000.
Evening with Miss Tammy Grimes: Empire Plush Room, York Hotel, 940 Sutter (at Hyde), 885-2800.
Every Inch a King: Berkeley City Club, 2315 Durant (at Ellsworth), Berkeley, 510-843-4822.
GayProv: Off-Market Studio, 965 Mission (at Fifth St.), 896-6477.
Guys and Dolls: San Jose Center for the Performing Arts, 255 Almaden (at Park), San Jose, 408-277-5277.
Lovers and Other Strangers: Shelton Theater, 533 Sutter (at Powell), 433-1226.
The Magic Flute: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness (at Grove), 864-3330.
Miss American Fido: Dark Room Theater, 2263 Mission (at 18th St.), 401-7987.
Monday Night Improv Jam: Off-Market Theater, 965 Mission (at Fifth St.), 896-6477.
Monday Night Marsh: The Marsh, 1062 Valencia (at 22nd St.), 826-5750.
Murder Mystery Dinner: The Archbishop's Mansion, 1000 Fulton (at Steiner), 563-7872.
Old Neighborhood: Off-Market Theater, 965 Mission (at Fifth St.), 896-6477.
One Touch of Venus: Eureka Theatre, 215 Jackson (at Front), 788-7469.
Pandora Experiment: Exit Theatre, 156 Eddy (at Taylor), 673-3847.
Race Is a Lie: SF Playhouse, 533 Sutter (at Powell), 677-9596.
Rainmaker: American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary (at Mason), 749-2228.
Ruthless! The Musical: The Purple Onion, 140 Columbus (at Pacific), 217-8400.
Scourge: ODC Theater, 3153 17th St. (at Shotwell), 863-9834.
Second Time Around: Empire Plush Room, York Hotel, 940 Sutter (at Hyde), 885-2800.
Shocktoberfest Publicly Executes Morality On Stage Friday: The Hypnodrome, 575 10th St. (at Bryant), 248-1900.
Shopping! The Musical: Shelton Theater, 533 Sutter (at Powell), 433-1226.
Solohouse: Shelton Theater, 533 Sutter (at Powell), 433-1226.
Teatro ZinZanni: Pier 29, Embarcadero (at Battery), 438-2668.
Tell It on Tuesday: Julia Morgan Center for the Arts, 2640 College (at Derby), Berkeley, 510-845-8542.
Triumph of Love: San Jose Repertory Theatre, 101 Paseo de San Antonio (at South Third St.), San Jose, 408-367-7255.