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Our critics weigh in on local theater

Bird in the Hand. This is a new play written by sometime solo performance artist and professor of creative writing at S.F. State Anne Galjour. Originally inspired by her love of birds, she began the play in 2001 as an exercise in monologues and duets. The play follows three couples in San Francisco whose relationships are all affected by their interest (or lack thereof) in birds. The four-actor play uses birds in an urban landscape as a voyeuristic vehicle peering into the apartments and homes of the characters. Throughout the show, the actors perch and birdcall as both scenic transitions and as sound effects. As the characters lament the habitat fragmentation of the city experience, their own personal isolations are revealed. This play could be incredibly engaging to an audience of "birding" enthusiasts, but to a layperson, it was hard to stay connected and care for the characters. The sound effects were also a bit distracting. At times, there was ambient noise from elsewhere in the building, and it was hard to tell which were accidental noises, and which were part of the show. The actors performed the piece quite well, all of them successfully playing several characters; and the layering of the scenes was done artfully by Galjour. Bird in the Hand is a play custom-made for a bird enthusiast or nature lover. Through July 29 at the Berkeley City Club, 2315 Durant Ave., Berkeley. Tickets are $25-$9 on a sliding scale. Call 510-558-1381 or visit (Nara Dahlbacka) Reviewed July 11.

The Gravedigger's Tango. Local playwright Ian Walker's intriguing, though uneven, new drama explores the gray area separating life from death through the prism of tango, though the language of the Argentine art form is more implied than explicitly stated. It's there in the setting — a twilight cemetery where gravediggers cavort with grinning skulls — as well as in the melodramatic story-within-a-storyline, which owes a debt to Edgar Allan Poe and Alfred Hitchcock's 1951 murder-mystery Strangers on a Train. The plot concerns a hard-up twentysomething by the name of Pip, forced to take a job as a junior gravedigger at the local cemetery to makes ends meet. When Pip discovers a mysterious headstone with no dates on it, the rookie's bilious boss, Laszlo, begins to recount the story behind the grave. Laszlo's tombstone yarn transports us to the north of England some years previously when a chance encounter on a train between a youthful American doctor and an avuncular British physician leads to dramatic consequences. In some ways, Walker manages to infuse the spirit of the tango into his study about what it means to live and die. His characters live in extreme circumstances. Yet despite the fact that the drama literally takes place at the grave's edge, the production frequently shies away from striking out into the void. The acting style, which is naturalistic and understated, seems to apologize for the melodrama when it should embrace it. Through July 28 at Traveling Jewish Theatre, 470 Florida St., (between 17th Street and Mariposa), S.F. Tickets are $15-25; call 508-5614 or visit (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed Jul. 18.

The Pandora Experiment. For Christian Cagigal's newest magic show, the audience is not so much a subject of clinical study, but an object of affection. Cagigal stands on a living room rug counting audience members with his stage manager before stepping off and, moments later, re-emerging transformed to guide us through "the experiment." Cagigal uses antique objects that are well worn, simple and accessible; two music boxes with haunting chimes, small chests with the treasures of a child inside. A doll of porcelain and papier-mâché gazes soulfully throughout and feels as real as any of us. His performance takes the audience beyond just the willing suspension of disbelief and into another place in time where magic is not the work of an illusionist or performer but exists in creaky wooden boxes found in a grandparent's attic. The set and lighting underscore Cagigal's creation to create an ethereal beauty. His staging and sensitivity as he plays with his audience conveys a level of safety and trust so as to not feel duped, but included in the magic. What does The Pandora Experiment reveal? Above all else: imagination. Through July 28 at the Exit Theatre, 156 Eddy St. (between Mason & Taylor), S.F. Tickets are $12 - $20; call 673-3847 or visit (N.D.) Reviewed June 20.

Song of Myself. It's easy to lump Walt Whitman in with all those other 19th-century writers who mistook themselves for invisible eyeballs and meandered aimlessly through the woods reciting passages from the Bhagavad Gita. But if anyone can talk us into reclaiming the American bard, it's John O'Keefe. The playwright/performer's abbreviated version of "Song of Myself" — Whitman's fecund ode to the pleasures of loafing — is an art song in spoken form. Poised halfway between being a straight recitation and an imaginative interpretation of Whitman's poem, the performance plays with our intellect and emotions like an intoxicating piece of music. From the euphoric whoop of the opening line to the melting breath of the final thought as it dissolves into darkness, O'Keefe takes us through many keys, both major and minor, as he explores Whitman's universe. At times, the poem races hectically forward, the performer lurching after the words like someone fielding simultaneous calls on a cellphone. Elsewhere during the performance, the mood is more reflective. O'Keefe cozies up to individual audience members, creating a bond of intimacy with us through Whitman's words. The poet's erratic, stream-of-consciousness style may be easier to digest while reading privately than listening to someone recite his lines out loud. But thanks to the vitality and variety of O'Keefe's approach, it doesn't take much for us to feel a sense of affinity for Whitman's celebration of himself. Extended through July 28 at the Marsh San Francisco, 1062 Valencia St. (between 21st and 22nd sts.), S.F. Tickets are $15-25; call 1-800-838-3006 or visit (C.V.) Reviewed June 13.

A Streetcar Named Desire. Tennessee Williams' script is just as heartwrenching and provocative, sexy and sweaty in 2007 as it was for its debut in 1947. The character-driven drama is about a faded Southern belle, Blanche DuBois, who goes to live with her baby sister, Stella, and Stella's "brute" husband, Stanley Kowalski. To this day, the 60-year-old play remains a scene-work staple at most Stanislavsky Method acting programs. Being cast in A Streetcar Named Desire should be an American stage actor's wet dream. Kamran Alexander shows real acting chops in this production; his Stanley is boorish and vulnerable, hot and frightening. Tara Donoghue (Stella) takes a character that could be a throwaway with the wrong actress, and gives her strength. She and Kamran steal the show with their electric chemistry. Barbara Michelson-Harder's Blanche, by comparison, just doesn't get there. It could have been a directing choice, but her character seems fake — indicating rather than allowing herself to become the vulnerable, trampled, and delicate woman that is Blanche DuBois. The director of Streetcar must play the role of teacher to coax and inspire the cast to fully commit to playing parts originated by the likes of Marlon Brando and Jessica Tandy, and in this production Richard Harder succeeds on most counts. Unfortunately, Harder diverges from Williams' script at the pinnacle moment of the play, when Blanche smashes a bottle and goes for Stanley's face. The sound of that bottle cracking is Blanche cracking, and this version didn't break it at all. Yet overall, this production is a worthy tribute to an American masterpiece. Presented by Off Broadway West Theatre Company through July 28 at the Phoenix Theatre, 414 Mason St., SF. Tickets are $30. Call 800-838-3006 or visit (N.D.) Reviewed July 18.

2 Boys in a Bed on a Cold Winter's Night
Lorraine Hansberry Theatre, 620 Sutter (at Mason), 474-8800.
Aftermath of War: In their Own Words
Diego Rivera Theater/CCSF, 50 Phelan (at Judson), 239-3100.
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.
Big City Improv
Shelton Theater, 533 Sutter (at Powell), 433-1226.
Buriel Clay Theater, 762 Fulton (at Webster), 922-2049.
Ellen Klages
Book Passage, 51 Tamal Vista (at Chickasaw), Corte Madera, 927-0960.
Faultline Festival
New College, 777 Valencia (at 19th St.), 437-3465.
The Bay Area Summer Opera Theater Institute
Florence Gould Theater, 34th Ave. & Clement (at Palace of the Legion of Honor), 863-3330.
Off-Market Studio, 965 Mission (at Fifth St.), 896-6477.
Glengarry Glen Ross
Actors Theatre San Francisco, 855 Bush (at Taylor), 345-1287.
Goodbye Yellow Brick Road
New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness (at Market), 861-8972.
Grandpa, It's Not Fitting
The Marsh, 1062 Valencia (at 22nd St.), 826-5750.
How We First Met
Theatre 39 at Pier 39, 2 Beach (Beach & Embarcadero).
Improv Revolution
Off-Market Theater, 965 Mission (at Fifth St.), 896-6477.
Insignificant Others
Zeum Theater, 221 Fourth St. (at Howard), 820-3320.
Killing My Lobster Kabaret
Make-Out Room, 3225 22nd St. (at Mission), 647-2888.
Love, Chaos & Dinner
Pier 29, Embarcadero (at Battery), 273-1620.
Man of La Mancha
SF Playhouse, 533 Sutter (at Powell), 677-9596.
Marcovicci Sings Rodgers and Hart
Empire Plush Room, York Hotel, 940 Sutter (at Hyde), 885-2800.
Miss American Fido
Dark Room Theater, 2263 Mission (at 18th St.), 401-7987.
Monday Night Improv Jam
Off-Market Theater, 965 Mission (at Fifth St.), 896-6477.
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.
No Parole
SF Playhouse, 533 Sutter (at Powell), 677-9596.
Our Breath Is as Thin as a Hummingbird's Spine
ODC Theater, 3153 17th St. (at Shotwell), 863-9834.
Perverts Put Out
CounterPULSE, 1310 Mission (at Ninth St.), 626-2060.
Romeo and Juliet
John Hinkel Park, Southampton (between San Diego and Somerset), Berkeley, (510) 420-0813.
San Francisco Improv Festival
Buriel Clay Theater, 762 Fulton (at Webster), 922-2049.
Schwabacher Summer Concert
Yerba Buena Gardens, Fourth St. & Mission, 247-6500.
Shopping! The Musical
Shelton Theater, 533 Sutter (at Powell), 433-1226.
Studio B Summer Sampler
ODC Theater, 3153 17th St. (at Shotwell), 863-9834.
The Taming of the Shrew
Magic Theatre, Fort Mason, Bldg. D, Marina & Buchanan, 441-8822.
Florence Gould Theater, 34th Ave. & Clement (at Palace of the Legion of Honor), 863-3330.
Teatro ZinZanni
Pier 29, Embarcadero (at Battery), 438-2668.
The Three Musketeers
John Hinkel Park, Southampton (between San Diego and Somerset), Berkeley, 510-655-0813.


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