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Our critics weigh in on local theater

Caroline, or Change. Tony Kushner's Caroline, or Change, with music by Jeanine Tesori, which came to San Francisco with much of the original Broadway cast intact, isn't your typical musical. At no point does the central character, Caroline Thibodeaux (Tonya Pinkins), a maid in a white Jewish household in early 1960s Louisiana and struggling mother of four, fall in love with a handsome stranger, sing a showstopping number in a sequined bikini, or carry out a violent murder with a hatchet. The show's biggest criminal incident revolves around a fight over a $20 bill. The flashiest song 'n' dance number is a nursery rhyme about an ill-fated urchin by the name of Roosevelt Petrucius Coleslaw sung by a trio of kids. And unless you count the infatuation of the Gellmans' 8-year-old son Noah with the grouchy maid, there is no love story to speak of, only a profound sense of futility and loss. Director George C. Wolfe couldn't have assembled a more magnificent cast to communicate Tesori's music and Kushner's words. (The performances were so engaging that I couldn't help wishing Riccardo Hernández's clunky, constantly trundling set would get stuck in the wings and leave the singing and acting to set the scene themselves.) At the center, a colossus astride an ironing board, stands Pinkins. Dressed in a matronly white maid's uniform with a scowl permanently fixed to her face, she makes an unlikely heroine. Her voice -- honeyed in the upper register, growling down below -- relates Caroline more closely to the great tragic heroines of opera than to the central character of a musical. Through Feb. 20 at the Curran Theater, 445 Geary (between Mason and Taylor), S.F. Tickets are $50-90; call 512-7770 or visit (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed Jan. 26.

The Gamester. Freyda 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 the 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.

Not a Genuine Black Man. It's not easy being green, but try being a black kid in San Leandro in the early '70s. When Brian Copeland got there -- just a few months after the Summer of Love, he points out -- it was one of the most viciously racist suburbs in America. Now it's officially the most diverse. "Take that, San Francisco," Copeland chides. He's earned that attitude, not just for going through his hell of growing up, but also for extracting from it such affirmative, hilarious stuff. Copeland's rightfully popular one-man show is wrought from pain and rage but never really succumbs to bitterness. "Is that black?" he asks, and proves that it is. Some of his best stereotype-busting material doesn't feel especially new, but it does feel good. Besides, it's the stereotypes that have passed their expiration dates: Copeland's title comes from an accusation recently flung at him by a cranky listener who called in to his KGO radio program. This show is his response. With help from declarative lighting and David Ford's direction, Copeland creates an affecting hybrid of the dramatic monologue and the rollicking stand-up act. Through Feb. 26 at the Marsh, 1062 Valencia (at 22nd Street), S.F. Tickets are $15-22; call 826-5750 or visit (Jonathan Kiefer) Reviewed June 2, 2004.

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.


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