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Our critics weigh in on local theater

Big Love. If Aeschylus and Karen O. had a baby, it might look something like FoolsFury's latest production. Charles Mee's fascinating text collage steals liberally from the old Greek's play The Suppliant Women, The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon (from Japan in the year 990), Andy Warhol shooter Valerie Solanas' writings, and a book on the psychic makeup of Nazi soldiers — forming a compelling exploration of love, power, dominance, and submission. The talented director Laley Lippard and the energetic cast bring a similar cut-and-paste aesthetic to the staging; classical and modern dance gestures mix with new-wave choreography from the '80s and punk rock abandon from the '70s. The actors demonstrate an intense commitment to illuminating the text: They literally throw themselves into something like a trance in an effort to fill Mee's sensual poetry. Big Love sacrifices character and narrative cohesion for language and movement-based images, and as a result there are awkward moments when a performer's excessive earnestness and avant-garde flailing betray this young group's lofty ambitions. That said, I can't think of another local company that's aiming so high. Through Oct. 28 at Traveling Jewish Theater, 470 Florida (at 18th St.), S.F. Tickets are $15-30; call 626-0453, ext. 108, or visit (Frank Wortham) Reviewed Oct. 4.

Colorado. In Peter Sinn Nachtrieb's murky comedy, the humble pecan, rhubarb, and chocolate cream pie comes to represent all that is disingenuous and misguided in American culture. When "Miss Late Teen Colorado" champion Tracey Ackhart mysteriously disappears a day shy of the national pageant finals in Virginia Beach, the local community rallies around her family in support — through an emotional outpouring of baked goods. Within 24 hours, the Ackharts' home has become so deluged with pies that the family could start a patisserie. As Tracey, Adrienne Papp delivers each cloying, overripe metaphor in her character's beauty (or rather, "bee-oody") pageant competition speeches with the perfect mix of misguided earnestness and self-indulgent, plastic smugness. Yet despite the power of the pie image and the enthusiastic performances from Impact Theatre's cast of four, Nachtrieb's play remains largely under-baked, with its stereotypical characters, sitcomlike scenarios, and moments of clunky exposition. Colorado contains many of the ingredients of a great play, but they don't blend together into a satisfying whole. Through Oct. 28 at Impact Theatre, La Val's Subterranean, 1834 Euclid (at Hearst), Berkeley. Tickets are $10-15; call (510) 464-4468 or visit (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed Oct. 11.

God of Hell. Sam Shepard's overtly political new play has the same strengths and weaknesses as a punk song. It's an unrefined, passionate indictment of the current neo-conservative administration and a theatrical rallying cry that wants expose pseudo-patriotic hypocrites. Yet its rushed sense of purpose blunts the poetic and dramatic subtlety that make Shepard's mid-period work — Buried Child, Curse of the Starving Class — so essential. God of Hell opens in a simple Midwestern farmhouse with a couple more interested in their plants and heifers than politics. The outside world comes rushing in when a fugitive houseguest draws the attention of a man who clearly represents everything Shepard finds reprehensible about America — a suit with sadistic tendencies who hides his fascistic jingoism behind a flag. The director and actors do their best with what feels like a promising first draft. The script and the production can't quite commit to naturalism, so the absurdist flights feel unearned and ungrounded (and vice versa). The visceral punch this production is looking for is just around the corner — but it never delivers. Shepard has found an authentic voice once again for his righteous political anger, yet it remains to be seen if he'll find the discipline and craft to galvanize his instincts. Through Oct. 22 at the Magic Theatre, Fort Mason Center, Marina & Buchanan, Building D, Third Floor, S.F. Tickets are $26-45; call 441-8822 or visit (Frank Wortham) Reviewed Oct. 11.

Love, Janis. What starts as a black-and-white photo montage of a young Midwestern girl in frilly baby-doll dresses soon explodes into a rainbow of psychedelic color and debaucherously good rock 'n' roll. Following the young and naive Joplin as she thumbs a ride from Port Arthur, Tex., to late-'60s San Francisco, Love, Janis documents four packed years through her tenure fronting Big Brother and the Holding Company and on into her solo career — and then comes to a screeching halt with her untimely heroin overdose in 1970. The narrative is pieced together from letters Joplin wrote home and bits of interviews, but though every word spoken on stage comes from Haight Ashbury's first pinup herself, these interludes are the weak link in an otherwise powerhouse show. Two actors play Joplin nightly, and the electric and deliriously pained voice of the singing stage persona (Mary Bridget Davies) contrasts shockingly with the giddy and practically ditzy Southern girl personality (Elizabeth Rainer), who sends mundane letters describing car trouble, TV-watching, and fluffy puppies. Thankfully, Love, Janis is primarily a pulse-pounding rock concert, with surging electric guitars, tie-dyed light show, and wafting incense — and Davies howling pure, unadulterated dirty blues that make the slickly recorded and sequenced music of today seem sadly soulless. Through Nov. 19 at Marines Memorial Theater, 609 Sutter (between Mason and Powell), S.F. Tickets are $35-67; call 771-6900 or visit (Nathaniel Eaton) Reviewed Sept. 20.

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.

Shopping! The Musical. Some theater types want to be Hamlet; others want to be Liza Minnelli. The smiling, hardworking performers in this new musical revue definitely fall into the latter category. Lyricist-composer Morris Bobrow uses his infectious, irreverent humor to great effect as he pays homage to the highs and lows of our compellingly crass commercial culture. He uses the small, cramped theater in a straightforward manner — four center-stage stools and an amusing backdrop provide the set. The accomplished accompanist Ben Keim keeps things lively on one side of the stage behind an upright piano. The actors lead us through songs that bring to mind Jerry Seinfeld's sharp observations on mundane modern life: "Shopping in Style" extols the virtues of Costco, and "Serious Shopping" imagines a man trying to buy lettuce from a riotously over-the-top grocery cult. The musical runs just over an hour, yet it still has a few rough spots. The mid-show sketch "Checking Out" gives us a limp comedic premise that we've seen before on sub-par sitcoms, and the piece "5 & 10" is a mix of awkward nostalgia and pitch problems. Nevertheless, this is a clever collection of tunes performed with an unabashedly cheesy enthusiasm that would make Liza proud. In an open-ended run at the Shelton Theater, 533 Sutter (between Powell and Mason), S.F. Tickets are $25-29; call (800) 838-3006 or visit (Frank Wortham) Reviewed June 14.

Taming of the Shrew. The African-American Shakespeare Company's production of the Bard's tale depicting the battle between a husband and wife for the marital upper hand can't be faulted for making bold production choices. Instead of traditional Elizabethan settings and garb, director Victoria Evans-Erville opts for a '70s Funkadelic/Blaxploitation/Good Times vibe. That means plenty of afros, polyester, and bell bottoms colored every hue of the DayGlo rainbow. Apparently Evans-Erville took the Shrew's phrase "irreverent robes" seriously. While updating Shakespeare to modern, relevant, and even fun locales sounds great, this production has so much fun that it seems almost mocking, showing little regard for the original writing and language. Traditional lines get contemporary additions such as "Tres cool," "You dig?" and "Here's the skinny." The musical interludes — featuring actors busting out into versions of Aretha Franklin and Marvin Gaye hits — might have been brilliant had they been sung and not badly lip-synched. Actors David Moore (Petruchio) and Tonia Usher (Kate) generate some nice friction in the famous seduction scene as they tango to the iambic pentameter beat, and Federico Edwards (Gremio) turns in an enjoyably bizarre, bug-eyed performance reminiscent of Don Knotts, but many of the others fumble the language. In the end, this attempt at a clever, hip interpretation of a classic becomes a goofy parody. Through Oct. 22 at the Buriel Clay Theatre, 762 Fulton (between Webster & Buchanan), S.F. call 762-2071 or visit (Nathaniel Eaton) Reviewed Oct. 4.

Travesties. It's hard to walk out of a Tom Stoppard play and not feel poorly educated. During Travesties' 2 1/2 hours, Stoppard nimbly sprints through Marxism, socialism, dadaism, nihilism, imperialism, expressionism, and cubism, then wraps it all up with a nice big bow of absurdism. If these "isms" (along with the history of the Russian Revolution) don't jibe with your knowledge base, then 90 percent of the night's rapid-fire references will fly over your head. This 1974 work places three of the most influential minds of the 20th century — James Joyce, Lenin, and Tristan Tzara (dadaist founder) — together in World War I-era Zurich, whereupon they commence a literate and madcap farce of a discussion about the merits of art, revolution, and politics. ACT helmer Carey Perloff's production is disorienting at the start, with tremendous bookcases flying from the sky, but soon establishes a cartoon funhouse energy that matches Stoppard's smug wit. The verbally and physically dexterous cast is assembled from top-notch performance institutions (Canada's Shaw Festival and Cirque du Soleil), and the material is a delicious workout for the mind. Even so, the production and the much-lauded script feel somewhat soulless. Stoppard is either a friggin' genius or a pretentious, elitist snob; depending on which you believe, you'll leave the theater feeling either dumbfounded or simply dumb. Through Oct. 21 at the American Conservatory Theater, 405 Geary (between Mason and Taylor), S.F. Tickets are $25-80; call 749-2228 or visit (Nathaniel Eaton) Reviewed Oct. 11.

Also Playing

Cowboy Mouth
Exit Theatre on Taylor, 277 Taylor (at Ellis), 673-3847.

Z Space Studio, 131 10th St. (at Mission), 626-0453.

Hipolito: Ready, Aim, Fire!
Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts, 2868 Mission (at 25th St.), 821-1155.

Victoria Theatre, 2961 16th St. (at Capp), 863-7576.

Richard III
Project Artaud Theater, 450 Florida (at 17th St.), 626-4370.

Phoenix Theatre, 414 Mason (at Geary), Suite 601, 989-0023.


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