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Our critics weigh in on local theater 

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 (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed March 29.

The Devil on All Sides. The idea that war can touch entire nations as well as individuals far beyond the time and geography of any specific conflict enshrouds French playwright Fabrice Melquiot's 2003 drama. Currently receiving its U.S. premiere in a translation by FoolsFURY's Ben Yalom, Melquiot's depiction of the ravages of the Bosnian War as seen through the eyes of a Serbian military exile presents a view of conflict that is as personal as it is universal. In this dense and disturbing play, an unwilling Serbian draftee flees to France. Living on the fringes of society, unable to blend in with his new surroundings yet unwilling to return home for fear of being court-martialed and shot, Lorko Ljevic (played by the slender and ephemeral Rod Hipskind) exists on a spectral plane, somewhere between solitude and community, heaven and hell. The familial drama (peopled by sharply drawn characters scratching out an existence on the edge of reason) grounds Devil in time and place. At the same time, Melquiot's affinity for the surreal and expressionistic — realized with equal amounts of control and exuberance by the excellent cast, Dan Stratton's dilapidated bomb site of a set, and Chris Studley's fiercely woven hot scarlet and cold blue lights — enables the play to resonate at a level common to all humanity. Through June 11 at Traveling Jewish Theatre, 470 Florida, (between 17th St. and Mariposa), S.F. Tickets are $12-30; call 626-0453 or visit (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed May 24.

How We First Met. Past performances of How We First Met — in which the love life of a couple from the audience is used as a source for improvised songs and sketches — have involved a pair who met online in a Dungeons and DragonsÐstyle chat room and a man who proposed to his girlfriend in the middle of a show. Not every pair invited up to the Purple Onion's diminutive stage will have as thrilling a story to tell, but that shouldn't matter. The production's cast of improvisers reacts quickly to the information they learn about the guests' romance. Creating snappy, relatively tuneful songs and funny skits out of such banalities as Marie Callender's chicken pot pie and the family cat, the performers prove that it is indeed possible to create comic theater out of life's pathetic details. Yet despite the warm atmosphere and all-round goodwill, the performance is hit-and-miss. Inspired moments come and go, and the overuse of the same few ideas becomes predictable. Jill Bourque (who conceived the show in 2001 as a one-off Valentine's Day special) maintains a crisp rhythm by interweaving questions to the guest couple with improvised material and more rehearsed sections involving costumed characters such as an Italian waiter and a beatnik poet. But despite her attentive direction, the costumed sections feel stagey. Still, judging by the demographic variety in the audience, How We First Met speaks to a wide population. Plus, it's quite fun. In an open-ended run at the Purple Onion, 140 Columbus (at Jackson), S.F. Tickets are $25; call 348-6280 or visit (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed April 19.

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 (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed Jan. 11. 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 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 July 1 at the Off-Market Theater, 965 Mission (at Fifth St.), S.F. Tickets are $15-20; call 820-1454 or visit (Nathaniel Eaton) Reviewed March 1.

Roulette. Nuclear families occasionally explode, and this sparkling production of Paul Weitz's startling new play captures the moment of detonation in all its hilariously heartbreaking glory. The show opens in a suburban house with Jon, an all-American dad, drinking his morning coffee — and playing Russian roulette. Jon might be going crazy for sane reasons: His son's capacity for violence is matched only by his lacerating self-contempt, his daughter has one hand in the liquor cabinet and one foot out the door, and his wife is having an affair with the guy next door, who lives with a woman who may or may not want Jon. Weitz seems to revel in taking moments we've seen before — on sitcoms, or perhaps in our own households — and twisting them till they crackle with an appealing exoticism. This is dark comedy done correctly. Roulette switches between broad humor and pitch-black despair, often within the same beat, and director Susi Damilano and her uncommonly talented cast navigate these dizzying moments with skill and subtlety. Roulette succeeds in referencing, then surpassing, much of the American family drama of the last 20 years; it shows us that kin, like the human heart, is both ugly and essential. The same is true of great theater. Through June 10 at S.F. Playhouse, 536 Sutter (between Powell and Mason), S.F. Tickets are $36; call 677-9596 or visit (Frank Wortham) Reviewed March 24.

Also Playing

Battle-of-the-Bay Theatresports Tournament Bayfront Theater, Fort Mason, Bldg. B (Marina & Buchanan), 474-8935.

Beach Blanket Babylon Club Fugazi, 678 Green (at Powell), 421-4222.

Beyond Therapy Shelton Theater, 533 Sutter (at Powell), 433-1226.

Big City Improv Shelton Theater, 533 Sutter (at Powell), 433-1226.

Campo Santo 10th Anniversary Intersection for the Arts, 446 Valencia (at 15th St.), 626-2787.

Chemical Imbalance Exit Theatre, 156 Eddy (at Taylor), 673-3847.

Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World Exit Theatre on Taylor, 277 Taylor (at Ellis), 673-3847.

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

The Fabulous Adventures of Captain Queer New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness (at Market), 861-8972.

GayProv Off-Market Studio, 965 Mission (at Fifth St.), 896-6477.

"Intrigue in the Mansion: Murder Mystery Dinner" The Archbishop's Mansion, 1000 Fulton (at Steiner), 563-7872.

Happy End Geary Theater, 415 Geary (at Mason), 749-2228.

Hunter Gatherers The Thick House, 1695 18th St. (at Arkansas), 587-4465.

Joan of Arc War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness (at Grove), 864-3330.

Killer Joe Magic Theatre, Fort Mason, Bldg. D, Marina & Buchanan, 441-8822.

Like a Dog on Linoleum Lorraine Hansberry Theatre, 620 Sutter (at Mason), 474-8800.

Long Christmas Ride Home Magic Theatre, Fort Mason, Bldg. D, Marina & Buchanan, 441-8822.

The Marsh Festival of New Voices The Marsh, 1062 Valencia (at 22nd St.), 826-5750.

Monday Night Improv Jam Off-Market Theater, 965 Mission (at Fifth St.), 368-9909.

Monday Night Make Em Ups San Francisco Comedy College, 414 Mason, #705 (at Geary), 921-2051.

Mort Sahl's America Empire Plush Room, York Hotel, 940 Sutter (at Hyde), 885-2800.

This Is Not a Test Shelton Theater, 533 Sutter (at Powell), 433-1226.

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

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


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