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Our critics weigh in on local theater

The Gamester. Freya Thomas' play, based on the 1696 Le Joueur by Jean-François Regnard, gives the verse style of classical French comedy a modern-day punch. The Gamester tells the story of Valère (Lorenzo Pisoni), a handsome rake, who risks forfeiting the love of his life, Angélique (Margot White), as a result of his rabid gambling obsession. Director Ron Lagomarsino's production at ACT is as flamboyant as Thomas' verse. Inspired as much by modern-day Sin City as by 17th-century France, the actors mince about the stage in brocade and periwigs even as the voices of Brat Pack crooners punctuate the scenes with sultry songs from another time and place. Feathers abound: Joan Mankin, fabulously vulgar in the role of Madame Sécurité, wears an extravagant red-feathered hat. But she's got nothing on Anthony Fusco, who, as the foppish Marquis de Fauxpas, looks like a bandylegged Big Bird, bedecked in custard-yellow plumage. The actors rattle off Thomas' challenging burlesque rhymes effortlessly, bringing a veneer of finesse to even the most potty-humored innuendo. But beyond that, there's nothing tempered about the performances: Braying like donkeys below the giant playing card fixtures of Kate Edmunds' unwieldy set, each character is pushed to caricature. Relinquishing center stage for even a minute is out of the question for these extravagant types, and the result is deafening clamor. Through Feb. 6 at Geary Theater, 415 Geary (at Mason), S.F. Tickets are $15-68; call 749-2228 or visit (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed Jan. 19.

I Look Like an Egg, But I Identify as a Cookie. In her solo show, Heather Gold recounts the journey from Niagara Falls (where she spent the first 19 years of her life) to her current role as San Francisco's resident lesbian domestic goddess -- while baking a batch of chocolate chip cookies in front of a live audience. Even as she's plunking bits of soggy dough onto a battered metal baking tray and babbling on about her rugby-playing days as a law student at Yale, Gold, wielding her remarkable improvisation skills, creates an atmosphere of cozy intimacy. Certain parts of her monologue ramble on for too long, but even during the show's most half-baked moments, it's easy to understand why the audience gets so involved: Gold makes for an endearingly slapdash cook. Each performance involves a special guest, and it's a sheer pleasure to see a food-themed show that's not about battling one's body image (as is so often the case with productions by female artists -- e.g., Eve Ensler's The Good Body) and a program stuffed with recipes for delicacies like gingersnaps and caramel chocolate squares. Through Feb. 27 at Hotel Rex, 562 Sutter (between Powell and Mason), S.F. Tickets are $30-50; call (800) 838-3006 or visit (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed Jan. 12.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Playing a convincing nut is one of the biggest challenges facing an actor. Like being drunk onstage without falling over, the thespian wishing to personify madness in a persuasive way must avoid clichés such as clucking like a chicken or flinging wildflowers out into the audience (unless, of course, the stage directions specifically call for this kind of thing). The cast members of the Actors Theatre/OTM production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest understand this, and as a result, the white and green surfaces that surround them stop looking like bits of carefully constructed stage scenery and start resembling the forbidding walls of a state mental hospital. Dale Wasserman's play, based on Ken Kesey's 1962 novel of the same title (and subsequently developed into an Oscar-winning 1975 movie starring Jack Nicholson), tells the story of how Randle Patrick McMurphy, a convicted felon who contrives to get himself sent to a mental institution as a way of avoiding hard labor, impacts the lives of his fellow asylum inmates. Christian Phillips gives an explosive performance as McMurphy, but the true power of this engrossing production derives from the assorted catatonics, depressives, and other dysfunctional souls who litter the ward like bits of swirling trash. From Michael Speyser's lurking performance as Chief Bromden to Graham Cowley's physically daring personification of paranoid neurotic Cheswick, the characters are as convincing as they are tragic. The action is further intensified through the casting of Rachel Klyce as the authoritarian Nurse Ratched. It's easy to hate the hatchet-faced, big-chested woman of Kesey's novel and Milos Forman's film. But looking more like Kate Winslet and less like a matronly old boot, Klyce presents a savage sweetness that creates an even more disturbing dynamic on the ward. Through Feb. 5 at the Actors Theatre of San Francisco, 533 Sutter (between Powell and Mason), S.F. Tickets are $10-25; call 296-9179 or visit (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed Jan. 19.

Rapunzel. The Children's Theatre Association of San Francisco gives the well-known yarn about a girl with exceedingly long locks a new sheen with its romping musical adaptation of Rapunzel, staged in the Legion of Honor's gorgeous, subterranean wedding cake of a theater. With its gender stereotyping -- a frilly pink dress and squeaky voice for the generously tressed damsel in distress, and a feathered cap, black boots, and swagger for her handsome prince -- and tidy moral messages, this production presents, in some ways, a traditional retelling of the Grimm fairy tale. But the fizzy book and lyrics by David Crane and Marta Kauffman (an interesting departure for the Emmy Awardwinning writing duo behind the Friends television series), composer Michael Skloff's toe-twirling tunes, and quirky performances by CTA's strong-voiced ensemble ensure that the cobwebby one-liner "Rapunzel, Rapunzel let down your hair" isn't a letdown. In fact, some of the jokes play as well to adults as they do to children. From a vegetarian witch (played alternately by Suzy Cronholm and Susan Pelosi) who wears too much hairspray and enjoys turning little boys into Brussels sprouts with her magic ring to a love duet with the tongue-in-cheek refrain "Me, my hair, and I," CTA's show is a scalp-tickling experience. Through Feb. 12 at the Florence Gould Theater, Legion of Honor, 34th Avenue & Clement, S.F. Tickets are $8-10; call 750-3600 or visit (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed Jan. 19.


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