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Our critics weigh in on local theater

Wednesday, Mar 26 2008

June in a Box. Playwright Octavio Solis and composer Beth Custer's latest theatrical collaboration retells the story of one of the strangest and most brutal kidnappings of the 20th century. Close to three-quarters of a century after mysterious assailants kidnapped June Robles, the 6-year-old granddaughter of a wealthy Arizona businessman, and buried her in the desert in a metal cage, Solis and Custer resurrect the tale of this long-forgotten crime to create a subtle meditation on the impact of passing time on events and the human impulse to suppress painful memories. Part living newspaper-style play and part musical fable, the play reimagines the story of the kidnapping as the victim might tell it decades later in her old age. Laced with touches of magical realism, mythology, and original songs, the production foregrounds the surreal over the real, ultimately distancing us from the historical facts surrounding June's abduction. The remoteness we feel from the events of April 1934 and their subsequent fallout teach us an interesting lesson in how the collective imagination processes and ultimately discards information. But despite compelling performances, this shadowy slip of a play ultimately exists beyond our reach and, like the historical events it seeks to represent, evaporates to the point where it seems almost forgettable. Through March 31 at Intersection for the Arts, 446 Valencia (at 15th St.), S.F. Tickets are $10-$25; call 626-3311 or visit (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed March 19.

Mimetic. According to the dictionary, "mimetic" means "imitative." Given that this original play is set primarily at the San Francisco Zoo, the title could be referring to the actors mimicking animals. Or maybe the performers are playing animals mimicking humans. After 90 minutes, you can't be sure, which is frustrating. The company wrote the script collaboratively, and cites Anton Chekhov, Vsevolod Meyerhold's Biomechanics (movement for actors), and Theater of the Oppressed founder Augusto Boal as inspirations. The result is an absurdist play with a fuzzy plot involving a group of humans (animals?) taking a city bus to the zoo as a sort of spiritual retreat. There are random mentions of banana pistols, monkey dung, and crossing the "perimeter." The incongruous dialogue is sprinkled with thoughts of dharma and fate, but often feels like random Tourette's outbursts ("You move slower than a three-day fuck!" and "When you masturbate, God kills a Republican!"). There are some fine examples of skillful physical comedy, especially by cofounder Noah Kelley, and the group meshes well as an ensemble, with some hilarious moments such as the synchronized dancing at the end. But the play's humor is somewhat undermined by its absurdity, which often leaves the audience bewildered. On the night I attended, the audience member to my left kept mumbling, "What the fuck?" and then laughing bemusedly. I concur. Through March 29 at the Exit Theater, 156 Eddy (at Mason), S.F. Tickets are $12-$20; call 673-3847 or visit (Nathaniel Eaton) Reviewed March 19.

Romeo & Juliet and Other Duets. Longtime theatrical partners Deborah Gwinn and Jim Cave put their own quirky, captivating spin on Ionesco's The Chairs and Shakespeare's famous star-crossed lovers. With little more than a rack of clothes, a collection of chairs, and some stirring music by the likes of George Gershwin, Enrico Toselli, and Nino Rota, the two actors use these tales as a springboard to explore the relationships of couples old and young, caught in the moment and yet still looking to get through their day-to-day lives. There are times in this 90-minute excursion when the approach is more mildly amusing than deeply felt. Without any sense of the devastating loss that underpins Ionesco's original story, the make-believe between Gwinn and Cave's middle-aged couple seems like idle chatter rather than a conscious attempt to avoid dealing with their deep despair. And the section when Romeo and Juliet leave each other and then kill themselves feels oddly perfunctory. But the scenes where Romeo and Juliet first get into bed together, and their final moments after death, take us straight from the silly to the sublime. Through March 29 at the Marsh, 1062 Valencia (at 21st St.), S.F. Tickets are $15-$35; call 826-5750 or visit (Molly Rhodes) Reviewed March 19.

Shopping! The Musical. The world is made up of two kinds of people — those who like musical revues and those who really, really don't. Writer and director Morris Bobrow's original compilation of song and skits is unlikely to convert anyone, but its 80 minutes are filled with plenty of amusing harmonized insights into everyone's favorite pastime. Who hasn't gritted their teeth at the quasi-ethnic knickknacks at street fairs? And, yeah, what exactly are handling fees? The evening could do with more variety of musical and performance styles; it falls back too often on the softly building show tune and the big-eyed, winking delivery. But as they enter the third year of their run in March, Bobrow and his cast and crew have honed an enjoyable formula that keeps you smiling — if not always singing — along. Ongoing at the Shelton Theater, 533 Sutter (at Powell), S.F. Tickets are $27-$29; call 392-8860 or visit (M.R.) Reviewed Jan. 2.

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. Through April 19 at the Marsh, 1062 Valencia (at 21st St.), S.F. Tickets are $15-$22; call 826-5750 or visit (C.V.) Reviewed Jan. 10, 2007.


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