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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 of the videogame company employees, the parents of the victims, the gunmen, the public relations consultants, 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.

Hair. I had such an enjoyable time at the Mountain Play's current staging of Hair, high atop Mount Tamalpais, that I went twice to take in the full experience. The production features close to 40 actors, a fully tripped-out band, and even a smoke-filled VW bus skidding to the front of the outdoor amphitheatre. The musical, which shocked and delighted audiences back in the Summer of Love (first rock musical, first openly gay character on Broadway, drugs, and nudity!), feels rather tame and clichéd by today's standards. A bunch of scraggly hippies singing endless songs justifying flower power, long hair, LSD, and group sex must seem rather quaint to the audience that looked like they lived it all 40 years ago. This production is joyful and celebratory if a bit dated — and unfortunately lacking naked actors — but what really stands out is the entire experience that your ticket buys. Pack a picnic, bring the wine, as well as the kids and old friends, and park the car down in Mill Valley. School buses shuttle huge audiences to the mountain top with outrageous views, musicians play pre-and post-show acts, bottles of soap-bubbles are given out, and ice cream and cheeseburgers are sold. Afterward, a bus will take you back, or for the adventurous there's a beautiful, and optional, six-mile hike down. A brilliant way to spend a lazy Sunday. June 17 is the final show at Cushing Memorial Amphitheatre, Mount Tamalpais State Park (see Web site), Marin. Tickets are $25-35; call 383-1100 or visit Reviewed June 6. (N.E.)

Hurlyburly. A couple of finely nuanced and touching performances aren't enough to hold together this three-hour-long play about guys in Hollywood trying to make sense of the near misses and outright failures of their lives. Christian Phillips and Scott Agar Jaicks capture the tough-guy ribaldry and stunted emotional capacity of playwright David Rabe's main characters, two unlikely best friends who know how to talk the game but have no idea how to deal with the world around them. But the choice to stage nearly all of the play with actors sitting on — or, for variety, standing behind or next to — two large couches sucks all the dynamic life out of this story. What moments of revelation or insight the actors discover are quickly swallowed up by the set, which might mimic the mediocrity of these characters' lives but does nothing to engage us with the journey of the play. Through June 23 at Actors Theatre of San Francisco, 855 Bush St. (between Mason and Taylor), S.F. Tickets are $10-30; call 345-1287 or visit Reviewed June 6. (M.R.)

Oliver Twist. Charles Dickens originally published Oliver Twist as a series of monthly magazine articles. Like the text upon which it is based, British auteur Neil Bartlett's stage adaptation is a page-turner. Every scene in Dickens' beloved 1838 novel about an orphan boy's journey from the horrors of the workhouse, through the depths of London's underworld, and finally to the warm embrace of a loving family, leaves us dangling expectantly for the next. The story generally careens along, devouring Dickens' words at the same dreamlike pace that the mercurial Carson Elrod's Artful Dodger leads Michael Wartella's waifish Oliver through London. Steeped in the lexicon of old English theatrical forms such as melodrama and pantomime Bartlett creates something that is both dramatically vivid and politically engaging out of the source material. From the smudged contours of the claustrophobic funhouse set, with its stained, yellowing walls covered with black boot prints and multiple trapdoors, to the scratchy, live musical accompaniment provided by a trio of wandering troubadours playing out-of-tune folk music instruments (hurdy-gurdy, fiddle and serpent) Bartlett's production coats Dickens' social critique about child poverty and the hypocrisy of the ruling classes with an extra thick layer of soot. Through June 24 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2025 Addison St. (at Shattuck), Berkeley. Tickets are $45-61; call 510-647-2949 or visit Reviewed June 6. (C.V.)

All Shook Up
San Jose Center for the Performing Arts, 255 Almaden (at Park), San Jose, 408-277-5277.
Anna Bella Eema
Traveling Jewish Theatre, 470 Florida (at Mariposa), 285-8282.
Artists in Motion
Shotwell Studios, 3252A 19th St. (at Folsom), 289-2000.
The Custom Stage, 965 Mission St. (at sixth), 838-3006.
Florence Gould Theater, 34th Ave. & Clement (at Palace of the Legion of Honor), 863-3330.
BATS: Sunday 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.
Bosoms And Neglect
Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison (at Shattuck), Berkeley, 510-843-4822.
Brewsie and Willie & Alice's Cookbook
Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, 3200 California (at Presidio), 292-1200.
Citizen Josh
Z Space Studio, 131 10th St. (at Mission), 626-0453.
Dead Happy
Randall Museum Theater, 199 Museum (at Roosevelt), 554-9600.
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.
Fields of Gold: The Music of Sting
Zeum Theater, 221 Fourth St. (at Howard), 820-3320.
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).
Imaginary Invalid
American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary (at Mason), 749-2228.
Improv Revolution
Off-Market Theater, 965 Mission (at Fifth St.), 896-6477.
Iphigenie en Tauride
War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness (at Grove), 864-3330.
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.
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 Make Em Ups
San Francisco Comedy College, 414 Mason, #705 (at Geary), 921-2051.
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.
NIght of the Living Dead: Live!
Hole Head Playhouse, 1333 Indiana (25th).
Bindlestiff Studio, 185 Sixth St. (at Howard), 974-1167.
Zellerbach Hall, Bancroft & Telegraph (UC Berkeley campus), 510-642-9988.
San Francisco Improv Festival
975 Howard, 975 Howard St. (at 6th).
Shopping! The Musical
Shelton Theater, 533 Sutter (at Powell), 433-1226.
SF Boylesque
Jon Sims Center for the Arts, 1519 Mission (at 11th St.), 554-0402.
Song of Myself
The Marsh, 1062 Valencia (at 22nd St.), 826-5750.
St. Boniface Church Theater, 133 Golden Gate Avenue (at Leavenworth).
A Street Car Named Desire
Phoenix Theatre, 414 Mason (at Geary), Suite 601, 989-0023.
Exit Theatre, 156 Eddy (at Taylor), 673-3847.
The Marsh, 1062 Valencia (at 22nd St.), 826-5750.
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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