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Our critics weigh in on local theater

Art. It's not hard to see why Yasmina Reza's play caused such a fuss when it appeared in Paris, London, New York, and just about everywhere else from the late 1990s onward. The tightly wound, bittersweet comedy in which three middle-aged friends, Yvan, Serge, and Marc, almost come to blows over a painting, is at one level about people's perceptions of art, and at another, the nature of human relationships. The Damien Hirst-size hype that surrounded the play a few years ago makes staging it today feel a bit like arriving at a costume ball just as the last guests are leaving, but SF Playhouse puts on a memorable afterparty. In many ways, Art is tailor-made for this company: Bill English, SF Playhouse's artistic director (who plays the role of Serge in the production), also happens to have designed some of the most stylish sets. The look for Art, which English created, is a study in clean angles and severe, understated elegance, like the interior of a Gucci store. The play is a wonderful chamber piece, too, perfect for performance in SF Playhouse's intimate yet airy space, by a trio of compelling actors. Keith Burkland is adorably shabby as the henpecked Yvan; dressed in a conservative blue pinstriped suit, Louis Parnell (Marc) is suitably outspoken and cynical; and English comes off as suave and ever so slightly smarmy as Serge, the dermatologist who buys the painting that sets the whole thing off. Director Robin Stanton's painterly blocking adds the final touch to this sublimely composed canvas. Through Sept. 3 at SF Playhouse, 536 Sutter (between Powell and Mason), S.F. Tickets are $30; call 677-9596 or visit (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed July 6.

"Blood Bucket Ballyhoo." "Blood Bucket Ballyhoo," a triptych of Grand Guignol shorts adapted for schlock-horror impresarios Thrillpeddlers by Rob Keefe and Eddie Muller, explores the twilight zone of 19th-century French taste with the help of some of the most elaborate props you're ever likely to stumble across outside of a dominatrix convention. A rat-infested Museum of Horrors -- equipped with a real, working guillotine and a coffin for those unfortunate enough to be buried alive -- is the setting for Lips of the Damned, a story about a cuckolded husband's revenge upon his wayward wife and her lover, suggested by the 1906 French comedy La Veuve by Eugène Héros and Léon Abric. In The Drug (adapted from René Berton's La Drouge, first performed in 1930), a bored, high-class lady is forced to confront a hideously disfigured ex-lover one night in a seedy Oriental opium den. Blood splatters and prosthetic body parts fly, but the lady -- quite literally -- cannot keep her eyes off the man she once destroyed. And in A Slight Tingling (inspired by the 1907 comedy Les Opérations du Professeur Verdier by Elie de Bassan), a surgeon's daughter attempts to find a pair of lost surgical scissors in the bodies of three of her father's patients with the aid of an amazing magnetic contraption. Director Russell Blackwood and his cast of dedicatedly damned souls present a danse macabre of ketchup-red theatrics. "Blood Bucket Ballyhoo" is in the best of the worst of all possible tastes. Through Aug. 13 at the Hypnodrome, 575 10th St. (between Bryant and Division), S.F. Tickets are $18-69; call 248-1900 or visit (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed Aug. 3.

Doing Good. The San Francisco Mime Troupe's Doing Good takes its inspiration from John Perkins' controversial memoir Confessions of an Economic Hit Man. The book describes Perkins' years helping the U.S. government and multinational corporations coerce foreign leaders into serving U.S. foreign policy. The troupe's riff on Perkins' real-life John le Carréstyle thriller follows the lives of a young, white, middle-class American couple, James and Molly, and their complicity in the homeland's less-than-benign interests in nations as widespread as Ecuador, Iran, Indonesia, and Panama. To avoid military service in Vietnam in 1968, James marries Molly and the pair move to the remote village of Pobre, Ecuador, on Peace Corps business. Very soon, the couple's innocuous attempts at "doing good" through building schoolhouses and educating local women about childbirth are overtaken by the arrival of a major U.S. corporation, whose aim it is to bring Ecuador "out of the Dark Ages" by building infrastructure with loans calculated to cripple the local economy. Despite some snappy one-liners and the bombastic live musical accompaniment, there's unfortunately little of aesthetic merit in Doing Good to mitigate the terrifying obviousness of its bludgeoning message. Through Oct. 2 at various locations throughout Northern California. Tickets are free; call 285-1717 or visit (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed July 13.

Golda's Balcony. William Gibson's one-woman play stars Tovah Feldshuh as Golda Meir, the Russian-born and U.S.-raised Jew who rose to lead Israel during some of its darkest years. Flitting gracefully between scenes from Meir's youth in America and her years in the Middle East, it provides a hard-hitting counterpoint to the popular, oversentimentalized view in the U.S. of Meir as "Mommile Golda, who makes chicken soup for her soldiers." Feldshuh's Meir is unabashedly practical and deeply unfeminine. Stocky and rasp-voiced in a matronly wool suit and thick gray bun, Feldshuh is so down-to-earth that she seems rooted to it, unwaveringly clinging to the Promised Land as an old oak tree weathers a storm. Our first view of Feldshuh, stoically smoking cigarettes against the thunder and glare of gunfire, low-flying planes, and exploding bombs, is the image we take away of the character at the end. Golda's Balcony tells an important story. Not only does it depict a formidable woman and charismatic leader, but it also helps to humanize, albeit in a partisan way, a political problem of such immense proportions and complexity that it resists comprehension, let alone the possibility of solution. Through Aug. 13 at the Geary Theater, 415 Geary (at Mason), S.F. Tickets are $20-69; call 749-2228 or visit (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed Aug. 3.

Nicholas Nickleby. California Shakespeare Theater's Nicholas Nickleby, adapted from Charles Dickens' 1838 novel by British playwright David Edgar, manages to wrestle the audience's attention away from rustling picnics and the rising moon through ingeniously theatrical staging and an alacrity of pace that makes you almost forget you've been sitting on a cold seat for more than three hours. Dickens' novel -- which follows the seesaw fortunes of the 19-year-old Nicholas Nickleby and his sister, Kate, in the wake of the death of their kindly but bankrupt father -- was initially adapted by Edgar for a 1980 London production by the Royal Shakespeare Company. Cal Shakes' two-part production, with its 24 actors and 6-1/2-hour running time (both parts together), is a "miniature" version of the original, which employed 48 actors and ran at close to nine hours. Edgar himself pared down his RSC text for Cal Shakes. Nickleby owes much of its magic to the combined creativity of directors Jonathan Moscone and Sean Daniels. Edgar's adaptation, which swings back and forth between different locations, is fluidly rendered through seamless physical and emotional changes. The ensemble scenes are lively and magnetic, but the general high pitch of the performances, in which every sentence is delivered as if it were the punch line to an extremely funny and original joke, backfires in a number of ways, such as undermining some of Dickens' most juicy scenes and characters -- the few that are supposed to be over the top. Part Two through Sept. 11 at the Bruns Memorial Amphitheater, 100 Gateway Blvd. (just off Highway 24), Orinda. Tickets are $10-55; call (510) 548-9666 or visit (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed July 27.

The Ugly American. Like many European destinations, London has always held a romantic allure for young Americans, appealing to their appetite for olde pubs, fish and chips, and tasty birds. But the recent bombings in the U.K. capital have caused that city's dark side to resurface in the global imagination with alarming force. As a result, the kernel of melancholy and fear at the heart of Mike Daisey's The Ugly American, an otherwise unabashedly potty account of the author's student year abroad in mid-1990s London, feels particularly powerful. Daisey -- who looks a bit like the Duchess from Alice in Wonderland as depicted by Victorian illustrator John Tenniel in the original editions of Lewis Carroll's book, and also shares something of the raucous Dame's demeanor -- is a master raconteur in the tradition of Spalding Gray, capable of entrancing an audience for two hours while only once getting up from behind a large wooden desk (and that was for the 10-minute intermission). The Ugly American is as daft, prescient, and eloquently delivered as Daisey's earlier solo show, 21 Dog Years: Doing Time @ Yet the material for this new effort could use some refining: While Daisey's journey to the fringes of London's theater scene is hilarious and culturally astute, the storyteller's depiction of his bittersweet love affair with a fellow actor feels long-winded and aimless. Through Aug. 13 at the Berkeley Rep's Thrust Stage, 2025 Addison (at Shattuck), Berkeley. Tickets are $15-35; call (510) 647-2949 or visit (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed Aug. 3.

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? did for the American theater in 1962 what Shelagh Delaney's A Taste of Honey did for its British equivalent just four years previously. Products of the postwar fracture of traditional family values and gender roles, both plays sent shock waves across their respective cultural landscapes and changed the face of theater forever. But while these days Delaney's play is considered a period piece and rarely performed, Actors Theatre's production (along with, of course, the recent highly lauded Broadway revival starring Bill Irwin and Kathleen Turner) proves Virginia Woolf to be as fresh today as it was when Albee wrote it. The caustically funny and darkly depraved drama takes place over the course of a booze-soaked night at the university-campus home of middle-aged history professor George (Christian Phillips) and his wife, Martha (Julia McNeal), as they play cat and mouse with each other and their newbie guests, the twentysomething biology professor Nick (Daniel Hart Donoghue) and his wife, Honey (Tara Donoghue). The claustrophobic atmosphere of Biz Duncan's living room set enhances the intensity of the couples' relentless "fun and games." Combining incisive, rhythmic direction by Keith Phillips and Kenneth Vandenberg with crisp performances by all four cast members (Tara Donoghue is especially pathetic and hilarious as the "thin-hipped" Honey), Actors Theatre's Virginia Woolf expertly mines the complex nature of marital relationships. Through Sept. 3 at the Actors Theatre, 533 Sutter (between Powell and Mason), S.F. Tickets are $10-30; call 296-9179 or visit (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed June 22.

Also Playing

Do You Want to Buy My Brain? Exit Theatre, 156 Eddy (at Taylor), 673-3847.

Grease USF Presentation Theater, 2350 Turk (at Masonic), 422-2434.

Jesus Hopped the "A" Train The Fellowship Church, 2041 Larkin (at Broadway), 776-4910.

Regretrosexual Phoenix Theatre, 414 Mason (at Geary), Suite 601, 989-0023.

Slow Falling Bird Exit Theatre on Taylor, 277 Taylor (at Ellis), 673-3847.

When God Winked Anna's Jazz Island, 2120 Allston (at Shattuck), Berkeley, 510-841-2599.


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