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Our critics weigh in on local theater 

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The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. The moldering schoolhouse tradition of spelling bees has inspired a cultural deluge of late, from Myla Goldberg's 2001 novel Bee Season to the forthcoming feature film Akeelah and the Bee. That the bee has buzzed its way onto the Broadway stage is further proof of the craze. William Finn and Rachel Sheinkin's musical comedy about a group of teenage misfits pitting their linguistic wits against each other won two Tonys and broke several box office records during its Broadway run. Tandem productions are playing in San Francisco and Chicago, with a touring show scheduled for the fall. Within the first 15 minutes of Putnam County's competition — set in a school gym complete with ropes, a basketball hoop, and stadium-style seating — we pretty much know everything we need to know about the contestants: They're freaks. Spelling Bee does have its faults. Most of the songs are about as memorable as the spelling (and meaning) of "macrencephalous"; attempts to inject a whiff of topicality — like a reference to Dick Cheney's shooting incident — feel forced; and many of the laughs come cheap. Yet in riotously sending up the spelling bee phenomenon in a variety of ways (including inviting four audience members onstage to be contestants at every performance), Spelling Bee makes an important point: Despite the high stakes, it's just a game. In an open-ended run at the Post Street Theatre, 450 Post (at Powell), S.F. Tickets are $40-66; call 771-6900 or visit www.spellingbeethemusical.com. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed March 29.

Culture Clash's Zorro in Hell. The audacious Chicano theater troupe Culture Clash takes a peek behind the mask of California's most famous man in black in a production packed with contemporary cultural references, from Arnold Schwarzenegger, the San Francisco Mime Troupe, and Dick Cheney to downloadable ringtones, the Nike Swoosh, and Tupac Shakur. Bombarding the Zorro myth — and the audience — with a volley of contemporary kitsch isn't about generating cheap laughs, though smart comedy there is aplenty. Richard Montoya, Ric Salinas, and Herbert Sigüenza are such versatile performers and saber-witted writers that they put these often sloppily used allusions to work. Instead of cracking weak jokes about pop stars and politicians, the ensemble (true to its name) forces particles of history, myth, and culture to clash against one another — with profound results. The jamming of pop culture against a legendary past make us see that the daring deeds of fiction couldn't be further from our own reality. By the end of this story, which concerns a cynical Los Angeles-based writer's attempt to pen a book about Zorro, we're left wondering how the word "fandango" ever meant an animated Spanish-American dance in triple time, when it's obviously the name of an online movie ticket service. Through April 16 at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2025 Addison (at Shattuck), Berkeley. Tickets are $10-59; call (510) 647 2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed April 5.

Menopause the Musical. Set in Bloomingdale's department store, this play unites four contrasting female characters — an Iowa housewife, an executive, a soap star, and a hippie — through the combined forces of cut-price lingerie and hormone replacement therapy. Singing doctored versions of 1960s and '70s pop favorites like "Stayin' Alive" ("Stayin' Awake") and "Puff, the Magic Dragon" ("Puff, My God I'm Draggin'"), the ladies potter from floor to floor, sharing their worst menopausal hang-ups as they try on clothes, rifle through sales racks, and run in and out of the store's many strategically placed powder rooms. Although Menopause is entertaining and energetically performed, it's unabashedly tacky. An ode to the delights of masturbation, sung down a pink microphone to an adaptation of the Beach Boys' "Good Vibrations," for instance, makes one think that all that's missing from this (very) belated bachelorette party is a male stripper. And as much as the show makes its largely 40-plus female audience feel more comfortable about getting older, it doesn't go far enough. Menopause is euphemistically referred to as "the change," which just seems to reinforce taboos. And its obsession with shopping, sex, and cellulite makes Menopause feel a lot like a geriatric issue of Cosmo. Rather than empowering women, the musical ends up underscoring clichés. In an open-ended run at Theatre 39, Pier 39, Beach & Embarcadero, S.F. Tickets are $46.50; call 433-3939 or visit www.menopausethemusical.com. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed Jan. 11.

Miss-Matches.com: Sex, Lies and Instant Messaging! "I'm barfing out the story — unabridged!" That's how actor and writer Leslie Beam explains it in her one-woman show Miss-Matches.com. This self-declared "queen of cyberland" takes us on a 66-minute journey through a small sampling of more than 300 badly matched Internet dates after the breakup of her 13-year marriage (he was obsessed with football and bong rips; she was consumed with computer-sex chat rooms). Beam gets props for hanging out her dirty laundry: Onstage she brandishes her favorite sex toys (including a 3-foot-long Black & Decker vibrator), shows us dungeon floggings, makes fun of gimp-armed lovers, complains about fat people, and confesses to multiple dates with a convict tattooed with the words "white pride." Any sympathy she generates sours when she lightheartedly reveals her prejudice, recounting her ghastly treatment of an innocent date solely because he was black. She doesn't delve into her discrimination or give it any particular reason or depth; she simply tries for a laugh. Later she turns down another black cybersuitor, responding that she hasn't yet "exhausted the entire pool of eligible white men." In trying to illuminate the human and humorous side of Internet dating, Beam delivers a one-dimensional portrayal of herself and caricatures of her dates, seeming intent on proving that the Web is filled with a disproportionate number of weirdos and psychos. Through April 29 at the Shelton Theater, 533 Sutter (between Mason and Powell), S.F. Tickets are $25; call 820-1454 or visit www.miss-matches.com. (Nathaniel Eaton) Reviewed March 1.

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 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 April 29 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, 2004.

The Sex Diaries. This freewheeling cabaret with a revolving cast of underground performers has its mind in the gutter and its heart in the right place. The Sex Diaries shuffles a group of kinky comedians, performance artists, and freaks like an enthusiastic amateur DJ every Friday and Saturday night on a cramped stage in the Mission District. Highlights from a recent show included a porn-addicted sock puppet, Sean Kelly's tale about a swinger party plagued by a rogue "ball cupper," Angie Krass' superior Southern-fried comedy, and an alluring Amazonian sex worker named Anomaly reading from her extremely well-informed "Whore's Glossary." Krass' riffs on chickens and lubrication sent the audience into hysterics, and Anomaly's charismatic lessons were invaluable for neophytes who can't tell a "BBW" from a "BBBJ." (You'll have to see it to find out the difference.) These fearless, sexy oddballs are just the type of people who help make our city great. The show itself is a mixed bag that occasionally feels like a Gong Show for the Marquis de Sade — the combination of kink and undisciplined casual performances inspired at least a few walkouts on the night I went. But on the whole The Sex Diaries is a fun diversion for San Franciscans biding their time till the next Folsom Street Fair. Through April 22 at the Dark Room Theater, 2263 Mission (at 19th St.), S.F. Tickets are $13; call 401-7987 or visit www.darkroomsf.com. (Frank Wortham) Reviewed April 5.

The Tribute to Frank, Sammy, Joey & Dean. Sandy Hackett's swingin' tribute to the Rat Pack takes us back to a time when men wore tuxedos in the desert, women could be one of two things (a lady or a tramp), and Celine Dion was just a golden apple in Las Vegas' hungry eye. Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Joey Bishop, and Dean Martin are brought back to life by God — and the talents of a quartet of impersonators — for one more night of highballing at the Sands Hotel. The concert-style production, featuring a live 12-piece band, perfectly captures the spirit of a long-lost era — from Johnny Edwards' (or Andy DiMino's) glossy Dean Martin pompadour to what would now be considered terribly un-PC gaffs about black Jews. These particular tribute artists aren't necessarily dead ringers for Frank and company, but if you close your eyes and listen to Tom Tiratto's silk-voiced renditions of "My Way" and "Come Fly With Me," you almost feel like you've been transported, martini in hand, to another time and place. In an open-ended run at the Marines' Memorial Theatre, 609 Sutter (at Mason), S.F. Tickets are $38-70; call 771-6900 or visit www.marinesmemorialtheatre.com. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed Aug. 24, 2005.

Also Playing

Arrhythmica Exit Stage Left, 156 Eddy (between Taylor & Mason), 673-3847.

Cave Dwellers Eureka Valley Recreation Center, 100 Collingwood (at 18th St.), 831-6810.

Dick 'n' Dubya Show The Marsh, 1062 Valencia (at 22nd St.), 826-5750.

Farewell to the Tooth Fairy Off-Market Theater, 965 Mission (at Fifth St.), 896-6477.

Franc D'Ambrosio's Broadway New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness (at Market), 861-8972.

Golden Apple Eureka Theatre, 215 Jackson (at Front), 788-7469.

Happiness The Marsh, 1062 Valencia (at 22nd St.), 826-5750.

Hijra New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness (at Market), 861-8972.

Juan Gelion Dances for the Sun Traveling Jewish Theatre, 470 Florida (at Mariposa), 285-8282.

Just Desserts! Shelton Theater, 533 Sutter (at Powell), 433-1226.

Love's Labour's Lost Exit Theatre, 156 Eddy (at Taylor), 673-3847.

Our Lady of 121st Street SF Playhouse, 536 Sutter (at Powell), 677-9596.

Revolving Madness Climate Theater, 285 Ninth St. (at Folsom), 863-1076.

Slap and Tickle New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness (at Market), 861-8972.

Slava's Snowshow Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor (at Market), 512-7770.

Swan Lake Orpheum Theater, 1192 Market (at Eighth St.), 512-7770.

"Viva Variety" Buriel Clay Theater, 762 Fulton (at Webster), for more information call 863-0741.

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