Endgame. Humanity is at the center of Rob Melrose's new production of Samuel Beckett's sepulchral 1957 masterpiece. This is no small achievement when you consider that the play is, like pretty much all of Beckett's dramatic works, surreal and largely plotless. Taking place in a dilapidated room, it mostly revolves around the bickering relationship between a dyspeptic, blind, wheelchair-bound old man, and a younger man with a limp who behaves like his indentured servant. Drawing upon Bertolt Brecht's edict that "the artist's job is to either make the familiar strange or the strange familiar," Melrose's masterful mise-en-scene succeeds in its aim to make "the strange familiar." The sense of familiarity begins with Fred Kinney's descriptive set, a facsimile of a rundown room in a San Francisco Victorian. Thanks to the unmistakably local flavor of the scenic design, we instantly know that this version of the play is unfolding right under our noses. Deeply affecting performances from David Sinaiko, Avery Monsen, Paul Gerrior, and Maureen Coyne further help to demystify Beckett's abstract world. But while this intensely humanized, quasinaturalistic staging allows us to connect in a visceral way with the play, the heightened proximity comes at a price. We need to feel as alienated from the characters as they are from each other in order to allow Beckett's death rattle to shudder through our bones. Our strong sense of familiarity with the characters makes them too easy to read. Through March 23 at Traveling Jewish Theatre, 470 Florida (at 17th St.), S.F. Tickets are $15-$30; call 419-3584 or visit www.cuttingball.com. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed Mar. 5.
Shopping! The Musical. The world is made up of two kinds of people — those who like musical revues and those who really, really don't. Writer and director Morris Bobrow's original compilation of song and skits is unlikely to convert anyone, but its 80 minutes are filled with plenty of amusing harmonized insights into everyone's favorite pastime. Who hasn't gritted their teeth at the quasi-ethnic knickknacks at street fairs? And, yeah, what exactly are handling fees? The evening could do with more variety of musical and performance styles; it falls back too often on the softly building show tune and the big-eyed, winking delivery. But as they enter the third year of their run in March, Bobrow and his cast and crew have honed an enjoyable formula that keeps you smiling — if not always singing — along. Ongoing at the Shelton Theater, 533 Sutter (at Powell), S.F. Tickets are $27-$29; call 392-8860 or visit www.shoppingthemusical.com. (Molly Rhodes) Reviewed Jan. 2.
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 and NGO cant 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. Opens March 20. Through April 19 at the Marsh, 1062 Valencia (at 21st St.), S.F. Tickets are $15-$22; call 826-5750 or visit www.themarsh.org. (C.V.) Reviewed Jan. 10, 2007.
Tir na nÓg. The whiff of seediness and exploitation that caused a number of Catholic priests to organize public burnings of Edna O'Brien's debut novel The Country Girls in Irish churchyards back in the 1960s is largely absent from the author's theatrical adaptation of her book. This jaunty tale about the journey of the studious, romantic Caithleen Brady and her feisty childhood friend, Barbara "Baba" Brennan, from their small rural hometown in the west of Ireland to a strict Catholic high school and finally to independent life in Dublin, vibrates with springlike energy and self-empowerment. From the breathless, episodic structure of the plot to the play's several flights of whimsy, including a midnight dormitory dance number performed to crooner Bobby Darin's "Under the Sea," Chris Smith's production skips along like a childhood game of hopscotch. The play affectionately captures the love-hate relationship between the two main characters, thanks to the contrast between Allison Jean White's understated Kate and Summer Serafin's bubbly Baba. Meanwhile, the pervasive presence of Deborah Black as the bardlike "Singing Woman" (a mythical character created specifically for the stage adaptation) and jaunty, fiddle-accompanied renditions of many well-known Irish ditties such as "Whiskey in the Jar" and "Dirty Old Town" steep the production in Irish lore. As a result of its heartwarming optimism, O'Brien's nostalgic homage to the pretty innocence of youth at times comes dangerously close to resembling a Disney musical. Audiences resistant to the idea of peering through an emerald lens at Blarneyland may find themselves craving a touch of the peaty bleakness of O'Brien's previous two Magic-produced dramas, Triptych and Family Butchers, to temper Riverdance alum Jean Carpenter's final toe-tapping dance number and the low-life characters' ebullient, whiskey-tinged camaraderie. Through March 23 at the Magic Theatre, Fort Mason Center (Marina and Buchanan), Building D, third floor, S.F. Tickets are $20-45; call 441-8822 or visit www.magictheatre.org. (C.V.) Reviewed March 12.
Wakefield; or Hello, Sophia. Central Works Theater Ensemble and playwright Brian Thorstenson bring out the best in each other in this elegant 70-minute production about how to reignite a marriage thought lost forever. The play picks up where Nathaniel Hawthorne's short story "Wakefield" left off, as a middle-aged man suddenly returns to his wife after just as suddenly walking out on her two decades before. As the couple, Julian López-Morillas and Jan Zvaifler deftly express the longing and confusion of their unexpected reunion, mining Thorstenson's deceptively simple text for the heartbreak that lies just beneath the surface of their halting or mundane words. The play sometimes gets stuck in their inability to communicate, a choice that is true to the mood of Hawthorne's original story, but ends up keeping us from fully engaging with these two lost souls. Yet we are pulled back into the play by moments of theatrical fantasy, where both husband and wife imagine what their lives could be in contrast to what they actually are. They're the kind of fantasies we all get stuck in, and the story of this couple learning how to let go of these what-if scenarios beautifully captures the struggle we all face to accept the flawed lives we have and love them all the same. Through March 23 at Berkeley City Club, 2315 Durant (at Ellsworth), Berkeley. Tickets are $14-$25; call 510-558-1381 or visit www.centralworks.org. (M.R.) Reviewed March 5.