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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), an African-American 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 stars 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.

Epiphanies. Word for Word's staging of two short stories, "The Necklace" ("La Parure") by the French writer Guy de Maupassant (1850-1893) and "A Jury of Her Peers" by the American author Susan Glaspell (1882-1948), explores the role of and expectations placed upon women in early 20th-century society. "The Necklace" tells the story of a bored and unhappy clerk's wife, Mathilde Loisel (Delia MacDougall), whose dreams of wealth and excitement are shattered when she borrows a necklace from a rich friend for a ball and promptly loses it. In "A Jury of Her Peers," a housewife, Minnie Wright (MacDougall again), is taken into custody following the murder of her husband. While the town sheriff (Brian Keith Russell) and his partners (Howard Swain, Andrew Hurteau) look for incriminating evidence in the Wright home, the sheriff's wife, Mrs. Peters (Stephanie Hunt), and a townswoman, Mrs. Hale (Patricia Silver), wait for their husbands in Mrs. Wright's kitchen, where they discover crucial evidence about the crime on their own. Performed against Mikiko Uesugi's versatile set, consisting of three simple panels, each with a door, the stories reveal startling contrasts and parallels. Maupassant's wry, detached tone is as much a critique of the petit bourgeois aspirations of Mme. Loisel as of the class system that surrounds her. Glaspell's tale, with its exposé of society's sexist values, is a subtle study of female solidarity. The decision to play "The Necklace" purely for laughs provides effective contrast to the darkness of "Jury," but the giggles come at the expense of the intense cruelty of Maupassant's fable. Similarly, in a story that revolves around the voicelessness of women, Word for Word's systematic articulation of every single word from the source material, down to the "he saids" and "she saids," rather spoils the cavernous, momentous silences crucial to Glaspell's tale. Nevertheless, David Dower's imaginative direction -- together with seamless performances from the acting ensemble -- brings both stories vividly to life. Through Feb. 13 at the Magic Theatre, Fort Mason, Building D, Marina & Buchanan, S.F. Tickets are $25-28, pay-what-you-can on Wednesdays; call 437-6775 or visit (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed Feb. 2.

Fortune. When it comes to romantic comedy, everybody knows what's going to happen from the moment the curtain rises: Harry and Sally meet, they argue, they make up, they live happily ever after. So you have to give people a compelling reason to stay in their seats. Shakespeare employed a whole gamut of devices to keep the groundlings glued to the, er, ground, from fairy magic (A Midsummer Night's Dream) to oaths of abstinence (Love's Labors Lost). Deborah Zoe Laufer does it -- rather elegantly -- with a crystal ball. In Marin Theatre Company's world premiere production of Laufer's new comedy, a pair of star-crossed lovers get mixed up in the semantics of fate. A nerdy and desperate accountant (Darren Bridgett) appears on a fortuneteller's doorstep in Brooklyn Heights, N.Y., demanding to know whether he'll ever fall in love. The jaded seer (Julia Brothers) wearily looks into her client's future. She foretells one set of events, but as the play unfolds manages -- quite inadvertently, and very much against the rules of augury -- to bring about another. Set designer Steven Coleman's take on a fortuneteller's parlor, with its layers of delicately colored gauze that shift mystically through the artistry of Jaymi Lee Smith's lighting, provides an otherworldly backdrop for the snappy colloquialisms of Laufer's dialogue. Energetic slapstick performances from Bridgett and Brothers and economical direction by Lee Sankowich convey both the foolish and the quasi-philosophical in the not terribly profound but nevertheless playful text. Through Feb. 13 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller (at Camino Alto), Mill Valley. Tickets are $41-46; call 388-5208 or visit (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed Feb. 2.

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.


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