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Our critics weigh in on local theater


Argonautika. The emasculation of heroes and the lambasting of misplaced heroics are at the heart of writer and director Mary Zimmerman's thought-provoking though ultimately self-defeating stage adaptation of the Jason and the Argonauts legend. Zimmerman gleefully pokes fun at Jason (the actor who plays him, Jake Suffian, is forced to perform the entire show wearing one sandal) and satirizes the heroic style of epic poetry through the use of contemporary slang: "Who gives a fuck about the Fleece? Some stinkin' piece of wool!" Yet for all her attempts to subvert the testosterone in the Jason myth, it ends up taking over. The main problem is that the essentially "masculine" narrative, on its relentless drive toward its final goal, offers little room for tonal variety or a change of pace. The director tries to mitigate this issue by throwing myriad special effects and clever staging ideas at the production, from sea monsters made of silk sheets to flying puppet harpies to energetic, rap-style ensemble songs. But the "phallic" plot structure remains intractable and the hectic visual language become cloying after a while — not to mention predictable. As a result, Zimmerman's antiheroic core message about the futility of war loses much of its impact. Through Dec. 23 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2025 Addison (at Shattuck), Berkeley. Tickets are $33-$69; call 510-647-2949 or visit (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed Dec. 5.

Based on a Totally True Story. Halfway through New Conservatory Theatre's production about a young writer trying to navigate the temptation and disappointment of Hollywood, the protagonist exclaims, "I refuse to be a cliché!" Too bad he's stuck in such an overdone and tired plotline: naive scribe gets his small play optioned for a blockbuster movie, and while doing artistically degrading rewrites, ruins his love life and everything that really "matters." As the title suggests, this is an autobiographical story by New York playwright Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa (who wrote last year's sharp production of The Mystery Plays at S.F. Playhouse). In real life, Aguirre-Sacasa writes for Marvel Comics (Fantastic Four and Spider-Man) and pens M. Night Shyamalan–esque plays. The unique behind-the-scenes details of plotting comic books and the specifics of an overextended writer's daily life rise above the remaining clichéd material here. The troubled relationship between the father and son also works, but the overexuberant acting style and hackneyed dialogue tend to gloss over the emotional arc of the story, leaving us with what feels like a episode of a second-rate TV show. Through Dec. 30 at New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness (at Oak), S.F. Tickets are $22-$34; call 861-8972 or visit (Nathaniel Eaton) Reviewed Dec. 5.

The Crowd You're in With. Rebecca Gilman's new play begins in a festive spirit as a couple in their early 30s host a July 4 party in the backyard of their rented Chicago apartment. Like a buffalo wing that has been left on the barbecue for too long, the holiday atmosphere soon becomes carcinogenic. The main catalyst for discomfort is reproduction. Jasper and Melinda want to get pregnant but have so far had no luck. Their friends Windsong and Dan, seven months on the way to having their first child, are feeling smug. Landlords Tom and Karen, meanwhile, decided long ago not to become parents and have never looked back. The characters hash out the "to procreate or not to procreate" debate in Gilman's flimsy 80-minute drama to its bitter end until Jasper, in particular, is left doubting everything he thought he held most dear. Director Amy Glazer's fluid staging, Gilman's Seinfeldian knack for making fun of the tiny details of quotidian life, and the cast's casual approach make us believe we're watching reality onstage. Unfortunately, the sense of shared experience dissolves into cliché. From the music-infatuated man-child in Converse sneakers (whom Nick Hornby captured so vividly more than a decade ago in High Fidelity) to the pushy, thirtysomething female with a fast-ticking body clock, we've seen these types before. Through Dec. 22 at the Magic Theatre, Fort Mason Center (Marina and Buchanan), Building D, S.F. Tickets are $20-$45; call 441-8822 or visit (C.V.) Reviewed Nov. 28.

The Necessity of Hank. If you have yet to experience RIPE Theatre, you are missing one of the most theatrically adventurous companies in the area. The substance of this particular play, about the strained relationship between a mother and a son, unfortunately often gets lost in all of its flights of theatrical fancy. A bit with a cat, for instance, starts out with much promise, yet by the end fails to resonate among all the other detritus onstage, including leaves from a strong storm and chalk outlines of thoughts and feelings. What's more, only Noah Kelly, as the fun-loving dentist dad, has the quicksilver quality needed to keep the deceptively mundane lines fresh and intriguing. (It probably doesn't hurt that he and his own mother, Val, penned the story.) Yet there is something exciting about the Kellys' constant choice to eschew plodding, straightforward storytelling for an imaginative oddball journey, one just as likely to ponder profound themes of loss and self-discovery as it is to send up those themes with quirky humor. Even if this particular piece is more style than substance, that style is so inventive and charming that you hope this seven-year-old company has many more tricks up its sleeve. Through Dec. 15 at Exit Stage Left, 156 Eddy (at Mason), S.F. Tickets are $12-$20; call 673-3847 or visit (Molly Rhodes) Reviewed Dec. 5.

Theater & Opera

Beach Blanket Babylon: A North Beach perennial featuring crazy hats, media personality caricatures, a splash of romance, and little substance. $25-$65. Club Fugazi, 678 Green (at Powell), 421-4222.

Beautiful Bad Things: A quirky romantic comedy set in Paris on New Year's Eve. Dec. 13-15. Exit Theatre, 156 Eddy (at Taylor), 673-3847,

Big City Improv: Actors take audience suggestions and create comedy from nothing. Fridays, 10 p.m., $15, Shelton Theater, 533 Sutter (at Powell), 433-1226,

Black Nativity: This piece is back for its ninth consecutive year, expanded with new songs, choreography and a new set, as well as featuring the leading gospel voices in the Bay Area. Through Dec. 23. Lorraine Hansberry Theatre, 620 Sutter (at Mason), 474-8800,

Bondage: Written by David Henry Hwang, directed by Ryan Yip, and set in a Los Angeles S&M parlor. Through Dec. 16. Exit Theatre on Taylor, 277 Taylor (at Ellis), 673-3847.

A Christmas Carol: ACT's annual celebration of Dickens' timeless tale. Through Dec. 23. American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary (at Mason), 749-2228,

Cinderella: The annual classic by the African-American Shakespeare Company. Through Dec. 30, $20-$25. Zeum Theater, 221 Fourth St. (at Howard), 820-3320.

Completely Hollywood (abridged): Through Jan. 6, 2008, 8 p.m., $45-$60. Marines Memorial Theater, 609 Sutter (at Mason), 771-6900,

The Crew's Holiday Long-Form: BATS' newest student ensemble presents a full holiday-themed play from audience suggestions. Sun., Dec. 16. Bayfront Theater, Fort Mason, Bldg. B (Marina & Buchanan), 474-8935.

"Ear Candy: Radio in the Flesh": Through Dec. 22, 8 p.m., $15. Dark Room Theater, 2263 Mission (at 18th St.), 401-7987,

Frolic: 2nd Annual CircusDragBurlesque Festival: This only-in-San-Francisco festival mixes circus, drag, and burlesque. Dec. 14-16. CounterPULSE, 1310 Mission (at Ninth St.), 626-2060,

GayProv: All levels of improvisational actors, gay or straight, are welcome at this weekly improv jam. Sundays, 8 p.m., $5. Off-Market Studio, 965 Mission (at Fifth St.), 896-6477,

Siddhartha, The Bright Path: The story of Prince Siddhartha's journey to become the Buddha, told in parallel with that of a modern-day San Francisco girl. Dec. 14-Jan. 6. The Marsh, 1062 Valencia (at 22nd St.), 826-5750,

Hard Nut: Mark Morris' reimagining of The Nutcracker, set in the 1970s with dancing Barbies, go-go boots, G.I. Joes, and leaping snowflakes. Dec. 14-23. UC Berkeley, Zellerbach Hall (Bancroft & Telegraph), Berkeley, 510-642-9988.

It Could Have Been a Wonderful Life: Based on the Christmas classic but with a few twists, notably Jack Benny. Through Dec. 16. SF Playhouse, 533 Sutter (at Powell), 677-9596,

Jersey Boys: The story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, and how they went from a group of blue-collar boys from the wrong side of the tracks to one of the biggest American pop-music sensations of all time. Through Dec. 30, $30-$90. Curran Theatre, 445 Geary (at Taylor), 551-2000.

Let It Snow: An Improvised Holiday Musical: An improvised musical, filled with good old-fashioned Broadway singing and dancing. Each performance is a new musical, set in the real hometown of an audience member. Through Dec. 16. Phoenix Theatre, 414 Mason (at Geary), Suite 601, 989-0023.

Long-Form Intensive Shows: The graduates of the 12-week BATS long-form intensive take the stage to create three different evenings of shows using audience suggestions. Fri., Dec. 14. Bayfront Theater, Fort Mason, Bldg. B (Marina & Buchanan), 474-8935.

Magic Holiday: A kids' show featuring two magicians and a juggler by David Hirata and friends. Through Dec. 30. The Marsh, 1062 Valencia (at 22nd St.), 826-5750,

Monday Night Improv Jam: Mondays, 8 p.m., $5, Off-Market Theater, 965 Mission (at Fifth St.), 896-6477,

Monday Night Marsh: Each week a different lineup of musicians, actors, performance artists, and others takes the stage. Mondays, $7. The Marsh, 1062 Valencia (at 22nd St.), 826-5750,

Mrs. Bob Cratchit's Wild Christmas Binge: A classic take on Dickens, directed by Joy Carlin. Through Jan. 12, 2008. SF Playhouse, 533 Sutter (at Powell), 677-9596,

Murder Mystery Dinner: A dinner that begins with detectives gathering to split $5 million in royalties from their latest book. Includes fruit and cheese reception and three-course dinner. One Saturday a month. Saturdays, 6:30 p.m., $85, The Archbishop's Mansion, 1000 Fulton (at Steiner), 563-7872.

Oh, Lady! Lady!!: A young man's wedding plans are derailed by a vampy former flame, a jewel thief out for one last spree, and an imperious future mother-in-law who has a shocking secret. Through Dec. 16. Eureka Theatre, 215 Jackson (at Front), 788-7469,

Risk Is This: Staged readings by Cutting Ball Theater. Through Dec. 15. Exit Theatre, 156 Eddy (at Taylor), 673-3847,

Shaker Chair: Shotgun Players' drama about environmental activism, written by Adam Bock. Dec. 12-Jan. 13. The Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby (at MLK Jr.), Berkeley, 510-841-6500.

Shopping! The Musical: Songs and sketches about shopping. Daily, $23-$29, Shelton Theater, 533 Sutter (at Powell), 433-1226,

Songs to Offend Almost Everyone: A cabaret written by Sharon McNight. Dec. 12-30. New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness (at Market), 861-8972,

Staircase: Through Dec. 16, 8 p.m., $15-$25. Theatre Rhinoceros, 2926 16th St. (at South Van Ness), 861-5079,

A Tenderloin Christmas: Living Miracle Productions takes the story of Christ's birth from the Bible and performs it live onstage along with traditional songs and dance. Plus, Santa Claus brings toys for the kids. Litz Plummer, The Opera Lady, is the featured soloist. Dec. 15. St. Boniface Church Theater, 133 Golden Gate (at Leavenworth).

This Wonderful Life: Holiday stage adaptation of the perennially popular holiday film It's a Wonderful Life. Through Dec. 23. San Jose Repertory Theatre, 101 Paseo de San Antonio (at S. Third St.), San Jose, 408-367-7255,

Very Special Money & Run Winter Season Holiday Special: An Impact Theatre special directed by Jeremy Forbing. Through Dec. 22. La Val's Subterranean Theater, 1834 Euclid (at Hearst), Berkeley, 510-234-6046.


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