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Our critics weigh in on local theater

Cryptogram. A cryptogram is a text written in code and that's exactly what this play feels like. For 80 minutes playwright David Mamet weaves a repetitive and inscrutable maze of dialogue, taking his time to get to the point. The drama, set in 1959, is about loss of innocence, infidelity, and the growing mystery behind a child's bizarre insomnia. Mamet's dialogue in this production is choppy, self-aware, and so un-natural sounding one wants to yell out after 30 minutes, "Just speak normally!" In a talk-back after the show with director Patrick Dooley, it was revealed that the cast agonized over the minute meaning and timing of every instance of Mamet's specific punctuation. The result is a performance that sounds more like a cryptic mathematical word equation than a story of a family in crisis. The small cast of three actors is obviously talented, and props go out to seventh-grader Gideon Lazarus for maturely handling his complex role. But it's only when the adults (Zehra Berkman and Kevin Clarke) begin to drink and slips of speech reveal dark secrets that this production becomes less affected and more intriguing. In one respect Mamet succeeded in writing a cryptogram because as one audience member said while exiting, "It is a weird play. I don't know what it means." Through June 17 at Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby (Martin Luther King Jr. Way and Adeline), Berkeley. Tickets are $17-25; call 510-841-6500 or visit Reviewed May 23. (N.E.)

First Person Shooter. Aaron Loeb's drama depicts the aftermath of a massacre at an Illinois high school. The play follows what happens after a videogame developer discovers a message on its Web site from the teenage killers thanking the company for creating "Megaton," a videogame that they say helped them to "practice" for their real-life shooting spree. Unusually for a work of art developed so close to calamitous events — in this case, mid-April's Virginia Tech massacre — the play focuses on examining the horrific incident from a multi-dimensional perspective rather than pinning the blame on a single party. Over the course of two hours, the playwright describes the fallout of the shootings from the perspective the videogame company employees, the parents of the victims, the gunmen, the public relations consultants, and lawyers hired to take sides, and the media. Unfortunately, the play seeks validity for so many viewpoints that the dramaturgy suffers. Many of the exchanges seem repetitive (why repeat Kerry's wife's death scene multiple times when once would suffice?) and/or twice as long as they ought to be. Similarly, the prevailing wisecracky videogame industry-speak quickly becomes as predictable as failing to get beyond Level 1 on a game of Gears of War. Though undeniably a bold effort, the play doesn't quite hit us between the eyes. Extended run through June 16 at SF Playhouse, 533 Sutter St. (between Powell and Mason), S.F. Tickets are $36; call 677-9596 or visit (C.V.) Reviewed May 23.

Tings Dey Happen. Based on his experiences as a Fulbright Scholar studying oil politics in Nigeria (American's fifth-biggest oil supplier), solo performer Dan Hoyle drills deep beneath the surface of media hype and NGO cant to help us understand the forces at work behind the oil-rich country's escalating cycle of corruption and violence. On his journey backward and forward between Nigeria's oil capital, Port Harcourt, and the lawless hinterlands of the Niger Delta, Hoyle — with acute attention to physical detail (and an ear for pidgin) — embodies a soft-spoken, 23-year-old rebel sniper whose chief desire is to obtain a university degree; a warlord armed with four cellphones and a family photo album, like Marlon Brando in The Godfather; and a nerdy Japanese member of the Young Diplomats Club in Lagos working on a thesis about the Tanzanian cashew nut, among many others. Like Anna Deavere Smith, one of the most famous practitioners of this style of show, Hoyle takes a journalistic approach. But unlike Smith, whose slavish impersonation of the speech nuances of her interviewees seems more stenography than artistry, Hoyle filters his Nigerian experience through his vivid imagination, creating full-blooded characters that are as theatrical as they are real. Extended run through June 23 at the Marsh, 1062 Valencia (between 21st and 22nd sts.), S.F. Tickets are $15-22; call 826-5750 or visit (C.V.) Reviewed Jan. 10.

Alone Together
Empire Plush Room, York Hotel, 940 Sutter (at Hyde), 885-2800.
Anna Bella Eema
Traveling Jewish Theatre, 470 Florida (at Mariposa), 285-8282.
A Street Car Named Desire
Phoenix Theatre, 414 Mason (at Geary), Suite 601, 989-0023.
B.A.T.S. Players
Fort Mason, Bldg. B, Marina & Buchanan, 474-6776.
"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.
Citizen Josh
Z Space Studio, 131 10th St. (at Mission), 626-0453.
The Cryptogram
The Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby (at MLK Jr.), Berkeley, 510-841-6500.
Death of a Salesman
Project Artaud Theater, 450 Florida (at 17th St.), 626-4370.
Der Rosenkavalier
War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness (at Grove), 864-3330.
Disney in Deutschland
The Next Stage, 1620 Gough (at Bush), Trinity Episcopal Church.
Don Giovanni
War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness (at Grove), 864-3330.
Drunk With Love: A Tribute to Frances Faye
Empire Plush Room, York Hotel, 940 Sutter (at Hyde), 885-2800.
Emperor Noton & Starbird
Legion of Honor, 100 34th Ave. (near Clement), 863-3330.
Fe in the Desert
Intersection for the Arts, 446 Valencia (at 15th St.), 626-3311.
Off-Market Studio, 965 Mission (at Fifth St.), 896-6477.
Great Men of Genius
Berkeley Repertory's Thrust Stage, 2025 Addison (at Shattuck), Berkeley, 510-647-2949.
How the Other Half Loves
Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts, 1601 Civic (at Locust), Walnut Creek, 925-943-7469.
How We First Met
Theatre 39 at Pier 39, 2 Beach (Beach & Embarcadero).
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Forum, 701 Mission (at Third St.), 978-ARTS.
Actors Theatre San Francisco, 855 Bush (at Taylor), 345-1287.
I'll Tell You When I'm Kidding
The Marsh, 1062 Valencia (at 22nd St.), 826-5750.
Imaginary Invalid
American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary (at Mason), 749-2228.
Killing My Lobster Saves the Day
Eureka Theatre, 215 Jackson (at Front), 788-7469.
New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness (at Market), 861-8972.
Lost and Found in the Mission
Mama Calizo's Voice Factory, 1519 Mission (at Van Ness), 690-9410.
Love, Chaos & Dinner
Pier 29, Embarcadero (at Battery), 273-1620.
Menopause the Musical
Theatre 39 at Pier 39, 2 Beach (Beach & Embarcadero), 433-3939.
Monday Night Marsh
The Marsh, 1062 Valencia (at 22nd St.), 826-5750.
Murder Mystery Dinner
The Archbishop's Mansion, 1000 Fulton (at Steiner), 563-7872.
Naught but Pirates
Exit Stage Left, 156 Eddy (between Taylor & Mason), 673-3847.
Oliver Twist
Berkeley Art Center, 1275 Walnut (at Rose) (Live Oak Park), Berkeley, 510-644-6893.
The Pandora Experiment
Exit Theatre, 156 Eddy (at Taylor), 673-3847.
Shopping! The Musical
Shelton Theater, 533 Sutter (at Powell), 433-1226.
Song of Myself
The Marsh, 1062 Valencia (at 22nd St.), 826-5750.
Special Forces
Theatre Rhinoceros, 2926 16th St. (at South Van Ness), 861-5079.
St. Boniface Church Theater, 133 Golden Gate Avenue (at Leavenworth).
The Subject Tonight is Love
Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller (at Evergreen), Mill Valley, 388-5208.
"Viva Variety"
Buriel Clay Theater, 762 Fulton (at Webster), for more information call 863-0741.
Why We Have a Body
Magic Theatre, Fort Mason, Bldg. D, Marina & Buchanan, 441-8822.
Yes, It's Today
Empire Plush Room, York Hotel, 940 Sutter (at Hyde), 885-2800.


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