Fist of Roses. Philip Kan Gotanda's new play is the latest and most abstract entry in the race for good "documentary theater," à la The Laramie Project. The playwright interviewed people in women's shelters, jails, and "violence re-education" programs to study why some men bash around the women they love, and his answer comes in the form of music, song, beat-box rhythms, and dance more than argument or testimony. Five actors mix brief stories of domestic violence with routines choreographed by Erika Chong Schuch. A clumsy, ironic dance to "He Hit Me (It Felt Like a Kiss)" by the Crystals is a highlight, in part because watching five burly, not exactly dance-trained men clap and twirl is like watching a bunch of football players try to be artistic. The best moments of the show plumb the ambiguity of violence -- that edge where affection turns to hate -- but never its psychology; the stories are too brief and fractured to bring about much insight. Tommy Shepherd, Danny Wolohan, Michael Cheng, Rajiv Shah, and Donald E. Lacy Jr. all act well, and Shepherd's intricate beat-boxing lends a strong, compelling rhythm. But ultimately Fist of Roses is just a musical montage, an "aural history" that fails to give its own hard stories enough weight. Through Nov. 22 at Intersection for the Arts, 446 Valencia (between 15th and 16th streets), S.F. Tickets are $9-15; call 626-3311 or visit www.theintersection.org. (Michael Scott Moore) Reviewed Nov. 10.
The Lion King. How do you turn a decent cartoon about African wildlife into a lame Broadway musical? 1) Puzzle carefully about the problem of costumes and sets. Pour millions of dollars and hours of mental energy into making your actors look like lions, hyenas, elephants, wildebeests, giraffes, and birds. Solve the problem brilliantly. Hire Julie Taymor to design the magnificent costumes and masks (and to direct the show). Hire Garth Fagan to choreograph elegant, exciting, Afro-Caribbean dance routines. Make sure Donald Holder lights the stage with an eloquent feeling for African distances and sunshine. In general make the show a visual feast. Then, 2) squint in confusion at the script, and 3) carve it up to make room for appalling songs by Tim Rice and Elton John. You'll have a profitable bunch of nonsense with more than one God-soaked number that sounds indistinguishable from bad Whitney Houston. The only cast member who can transcend this mess and give a stirring performance is Thandazile Soni, as Rafiki the monkey shaman, who gets to sing songs like "Nants' Ingonyama," by Lebo M and other African chants originated by Tsidii Le Loka on Broadway. Bob Bouchard is also funny as Pumbaa the warthog, and Derek Smith plays a perfectly arrogant, sinister Scar, the pretender lion king. Otherwise the show is forced and childish. Adults looking for good theater will be happier when the performers dance instead of trying to act. Through Nov. 21 at the Orpheum Theatre, 1182 Market (at Eighth Street), S.F. Tickets are $26-160; call 512-7770 or visit www.bestofbroadway-sf.com. (Michael Scott Moore) Reviewed Feb. 11.
Not a Genuine Black Man. It's not easy being green, but try being a black kid in San Leandro in the early '70s. When Brian Copeland got there -- just a few months after the Summer of Love, he points out -- it was one of the most viciously racist suburbs in America. Now it's officially the most diverse. "Take that, San Francisco," Copeland chides. He's earned that attitude, not just for going through his hell of growing up, but also for extracting from it such affirmative, hilarious stuff. Copeland's rightfully popular one-man show is wrought from pain and rage, but never really succumbs to bitterness. "Is that black?" he asks, and proves that it is. Some of his best stereotype-busting material doesn't feel especially new, but it does feel good. Besides, it's the stereotypes that have passed their expiration dates: Copeland's title comes from an accusation recently flung at him by a cranky listener who called in to his KGO radio program. This show is his response. With help from declarative lighting and David Ford's direction, Copeland creates an affecting hybrid of the dramatic monologue and the rollicking stand-up act. Through Nov. 27 at the Marsh, 1062 Valencia (at 22nd Street), S.F. Tickets are $15-22; call 826-5750 or visit www.themarsh.org. (Jonathan Kiefer) Reviewed June 2.
The Real Thing. Tom Stoppard's meditation on marital catastrophe has the brutal comic momentum of the best British writing on the subject -- think of Harold Pinter's Betrayal or Iris Murdoch's A Severed Head -- and René Augesen, as the blithe and fickle Annie, has been cast by director Carey Perloff in a role we can all agree is her defining type: the beautiful disaster. Annie's an impetuous young actress who rips Henry, a playwright, away from his smoother, more elegantly savage wife, Charlotte (also an actress), then divorces her actor husband, Max, and marries Henry only to cheat on him in turn. She whirls through the play like a tropical storm, maintaining an easy independence and an ate-the-canary smile. The second act is an agonized piece of writing about Henry's confusion -- has he found true love? Did he do the right thing? Or is truth just a matter of (trickable, unreliable) perception? In spite of some overliteral touches by Perloff -- in particular the smallish mock-up of the Geary Theater's own proscenium arching over every scene -- the actors keep the pace brisk and explosive and rude. Through Nov. 21 at the Geary Theater, 415 Geary (at Mason), S.F. Tickets are $11-68; call 749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org. (Michael Scott Moore) Reviewed Nov. 10.