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Our critics weigh in on local theater

Wednesday, Dec 31 2008

Abraham Lincoln's Big Gay Dance Party. The core conceit of Aaron Loeb's ambitious, hilarious, and dramaturgically hairy comedy is that the audience gets to vote on which order to watch three different perspectives on the same events. At the end, the audience also decides whether an Illinois grade school teacher hauled into court for besmirching Abraham Lincoln's reputation with an unconventional Christmas pageant outing him as gay is guilty of the crime of polluting young minds. Because the chance-laden format means no one act necessarily precedes another, each segment is riddled with exposition. Nevertheless, Loeb generally pulls off his stunt with aplomb. In the Mel Brooks–like prologue, the production's seven actors — all dressed in the statutory Lincoln drag of stovepipe hat, black overcoat, and beard — embody a bunch of fourth graders acting out their R-rated Christmas pageant. Then they ask the audience from which vantage point they'd like to watch the events unfold first, repeating the question for the remaining two options later on. The three choices include a tale of political intrigue told from the perspective of a moderate black female Republican senator (an uptight Velina Brown); a flamboyant love story told from the perspective of a New York journalist (a nuanced Mark Anderson Phillips); and a dramatic morality tale told from the perspective of a homophobic congressman (a cartoonish yet empathetic Joe Kady). Part pop-culture–infused political satire, part kitsch romance, and part high-kicking surrealist "happening," the play teaches us to take nothing at face value, be it a president's sexual orientation or every American's right to vote. Through Jan. 17 at SF Playhouse, 533 Sutter (at Powell), S.F. $40; call 677-9596 or visit (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed Dec. 24.

The Arabian Nights. Mary Zimmerman's theatrical retelling of narratives from the ancient Middle Eastern story cycle also popularly known as The Thousand and One Nights is all about the power of riveting stories to bring the hidden to light and resuscitate long-dormant truths in society. Concealment is a running theme throughout. It's there in the main plot concerning the ruthless King Shahryar, who, in revenge at having caught his wife in the arms of another man, vows to murder every virgin in the land. But the wily Scheherezade manages to staunch his bloodlust by telling him a series of incredible stories that distract him from killing her. Eventually, Scheherezade helps the king rediscover his buried compassion. With the help of dozens of brightly colored Persian rugs, a canopy of hanging lanterns, and 15 versatile ensemble performers who match vivid characterizations with flamboyant musical, dancing, improvisational comedy, and storytelling skills, Zimmerman creates a multilayered world. This visually and intellectually captivating production reveals a deep connection between a civilization and its heritage, no matter how buried beneath the sands of war-torn time that cultural legacy might be. Through Jan. 18 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2025 Addison (at Shattuck), Berkeley. $13.50-$71; call 510- 647-2949 or visit (C.V.) Reviewed Dec. 10.

Dame Edna Live and Intimate! In Her First Last Tour. Dame Edna Everage, the drag queen alter ego of 74-year-old Australian performer and writer Barry Humphries, often describes her live act as "a conversation between two people — one of whom is more interesting than the other." As big as her ego is, it's hard to think of any comic performer who brings out the best in audiences as well as Dame Edna does. For example, in a chat show routine involving four audience members the night I attended, a retired San Francisco Zoo penguin keeper called Jane became half of a hilarious impromptu comedy duo with the Dame. Jane made un-PC comments about having a short Brazilian housekeeper; Dame Edna drew a link between the penguins and the nuns at the Catholic schools Jane attended. An elderly male interviewee, affectionately dubbed "Senior," gave an impressive, full-blown rendition of "If I Were a Rich Man" from Fiddler on the Roof. Onstage pianist Andrew Ross swiftly picked up the key and played along. "I have never before in my life felt superfluous," Dame Edna said after Senior was through. And, in perhaps the most surprising ad-libbed moment, a tiny woman with gray bangs and an elfin face vehemently declared, when asked whether her husband was still alive, "No. I'm so glad he's dead, and I hope he's in hell." These spontaneous moments are by far the best part of the show. Through Jan. 4 at Post Street Theatre, 450 Post (at Powell), S.F. $58-$78; call 771-6900 or visit (C.V.) Reviewed Dec. 17.

No Parole. If Pedro Almodóvar ever did a one-man show, it would probably be something like this. No Parole is part self-revelation and part telenovela, telling the outrageous story of Carlo D'Amore's childhood in Peru, immigration to America, and development as a con artist under the eye of his cheerfully unscrupulous mother. D'Amore manically careens between continents and decades, and if he does so with more verve than precision, he still manages to create a generous, vividly imagined world of grand larceny and very poor parenting. The show's best moments occur during the small sequences involving well-drawn minor characters, such as a hilarious bit in which he portrays a volunteer at a gay men's health clinic. He's a little less successful in tracing the broader strokes of his long and complicated relationship with his mother. As a result, the show doesn't quite earn its climactic emotional payoff, with D'Amore's final attempt to connect emotionally with his audience proving a little too trite to be satisfying. On balance, though, No Parole is a fine showcase for a good showman, and the stories he tells will make you wonder why you ever complained about your own weird and horrible childhood. Jan. 3-25 at the Marsh, 1062 Valencia (at 22nd St.), S.F. $15-$50; 826-5750 or (Chris Jensen) Reviewed Dec. 3.

Wrapping Paper Caper. This isn't the sort of thing you can easily summarize, let alone criticize. The kid-friendly production at the Marsh is part recyclable art, part Looney Tunes. The performers behind Lunatique Fantastique use an unlikely array of inanimate objects — in this case, the trappings of holiday gift-giving such as packing peanuts, foil wrapping paper, and cardboard tubes — to do what could be loosely described as "puppetry." The story concerns a Sam Spade–type character who follows a glittery femme fatale on a free-associative journey from the ocean floor to a French restaurant and beyond. It's mostly nonsense from a narrative point of view, but the story unfolds so quickly and with so much vigor that even the grimmest of adults will have a difficult time resisting the steady stream of inspired lunacy. It's really the perfect zero-guilt distraction for kids on a cold winter afternoon — a sneakily smart show that delivers inventive, goofy pratfalls with imagination and skill. Not that you need tots as an excuse. The audience on Dec. 14 was composed mostly of adults, and they seemed as happy as kids surrounded by crumpled wrapping paper on Christmas morning. Through Jan. 4 at the Marsh, 1062 Valencia (at 22nd St.), S.F. $10; call 826-5750 or visit (C.J.) Reviewed Dec. 24.

Joy Behar: w/ Wing Han Tsang. Wed., Dec. 31, 10:30 p.m., $39-$100, Castro Theatre, 429 Castro (at Market), 621-6120,

Marga Gomez' N.Y.E. Spectacular: w/ Ali Mafi. Wed., Dec. 31, 7 & 9 p.m., $25-$30, all ages. Victoria Theatre, 2961 16th St. (at Capp), 863-7576,

3 for All and True Fiction Magazine's New Year's Eve Show: Celebrate with improv. Wed., Dec. 31, 8 p.m., Fort Mason, Cowell Theater, in Herbst Pavilion, Marina & Buchanan, 345-7575,

New Year's Solo-Tacular: Top players from W. Kamau Bell's ongoing Solo Performance Workshop. Wed., Dec. 31, 7:30 & 10 p.m. Stage Werx, 533 Sutter (at Powell),

The Phantom of the Opera: The famous musical, directed by Harold Prince. Through Jan. 4. Orpheum Theater, 1192 Market (at Eighth St.), 512-7770.

Santaland Diaries: Through Jan. 4, 8 p.m., $25. Off-Market Theater, 965 Mission (at Fifth St.), 820-1656,

T.I.C. Trenchcoat in Common: Peter Sinn Nachtrieb's new show about blogging. Jan. 2-Feb. 1. Magic Theatre, Fort Mason, Bldg. D (Marina & Buchanan), 441-8822,

The Wizard of Oz: The classic for kids, directed by Stephanie Temple. Through Jan. 3. New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness (at Market), 861-8972,

Zanna, Don't: A Musical Fairy Tale: Tim Acito's musical about matchmaking. Through Jan. 18. New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness (at Market), 861-8972,

About The Authors

Chris Jensen


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