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Our critics weigh in on local theater 

4 Adverbs. In Word for Word's production of four chapters from Daniel Handler's overwrought forthcoming "novel" about the complexities of modern relationships, actors portray wine bottles, a live volcano, cockroaches, doughnuts, and magpies, among other things. The stories follow such misfit characters as a champagne-swigging British expat trying to bridge the cultural divide in San Francisco, the ghost of a man recently murdered in Golden Gate Park, and a student stuck in a car with a mad college dropout on the road to "South San Francisco the Industrial City." Director Sheila Balter's equally self-conscious, yet highly inventive, staging works in many respects: The physically expressive ensemble of eight actors hits the goofy spirit of Handler's situations with precision. But despite the imaginative mise-en-scène and the brilliant ensemble work, self-consciousness soon takes over. The metatheatrics of the text and the staging remind us that we're watching a literary work onstage; we can never sit back and simply enjoy the story. Instead of helping us gain insight into Handler's world of misplaced lovers, the excess staginess puts us off: In "Wrongly," for example, when two actors pretend to be earrings, in the shape of Shakespeare's head, dangling from a character's ears, it's not merely cute, but so overwrought it's distracting. Through March 19 at the Project Artaud Theater, 450 Florida (between 17th and Mariposa streets), S.F. Tickets are $25-32; call 437-6775 or visit (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed March 8.

Family Alchemy: Malamud & Paley Stories on Stage. In order for theater to deliver on its rarely achieved promise of a transcendent live experience that no television show or movie can rival, all the disparate elements of a production must magically fuse together. This doesn't happen often, but Traveling Jewish Theatre is working diligently to discover the formula. In the confident hands of the four-member cast headed by two of TJT's founders, Naomi Newman and Corey Fischer -- both seasoned and talented actors -- three short stories by celebrated Jewish authors Grace Paley and Bernard Malamud are performed exactly as written, with all the "he said"/"she said" third-person narration left intact, the whole thing woven together by the keen eye of director Joel Mullennix. The first, "Mother," features a daughter bringing her dead mom back to life by vividly recalling simple moments around the house. In "The Story Hearer," we eavesdrop on urban tales and meet wonderfully realized characters (several played by the feisty Jeri Lynn Cohen) during a day's walk through 1970s New York City. Finally, "The Magic Barrel" introduces San Francisco newcomer Max Gordon Moore, burning with joyous intensity as Leo, a young rabbi in training who hires a marriage broker (a transformed and hollow-faced Fischer) to find him a wife, and in the hilarious process finds his faith. Short story as theater is a risky endeavor, but TJT never drops the ball, and the result is pure storytelling -- simplified, thrilling, and vigorously reinvented, a slap in the face to anyone who has ever said theater is dead. Through March 19 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro (at Mercy), Mountain View. Tickets are $12-35; call 522-0786 or visit (Nathaniel Eaton) Reviewed Feb. 15.

Hamlet. Director Melissa Hillman's decision to stage the world's most famous play in a pizzeria basement is nothing if not bold. Her actors perform with passion, she knows how to make a virtue out of the cramped surroundings, and her transitions between scenes are consistently slick. Best of all, she's blessed with a remarkable leading man: Patrick Alparone is a young actor of tantalizing range and promise. From the moment he appears in the space, silent and aquiline as a Trappist monk in his black hoodie, one senses the weight this Hamlet bears on his shoulders as well as his mocking intelligence. But even Alparone could use a little more directorial focus. Impact Theatre's production, though audacious, is hampered by the lack of a coherent vision. Hillman's interest in contemporizing the political aspects of the play -- with guns, indie rock, and night watchmen reimagined as bodyguards -- doesn't quite coalesce with her fascination for Hamlet's metatheatrical undercurrent. Revealingly, the scenes in which Hillman appears onstage as Hamlet's mother are the weakest. If only she would stick to directing. Or find another director, if she must act. Through March 18 at La Val's Subterranean Theatre, 1834 Euclid (at Hearst), Berkeley. Tickets are $10-15; call (510) 464-4468 or visit (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed March 1.

Menopause the Musical. Set in Bloomingdale's department store, this play unites four contrasting female characters -- an Iowa housewife, an executive, a soap star, and a hippie -- through the combined forces of cut-price lingerie and hormone replacement therapy. Singing doctored versions of 1960s and '70s pop favorites like "Stayin' Alive" ("Stayin' Awake") and "Puff, the Magic Dragon" ("Puff, My God I'm Draggin'"), the ladies potter from floor to floor, sharing their worst menopausal hang-ups as they try on clothes, rifle through sales racks, and run in and out of the store's many strategically placed powder rooms. Although Menopause is entertaining and energetically performed, it's unabashedly tacky. An ode to the delights of masturbation, sung down a pink microphone to an adaptation of the Beach Boys' "Good Vibrations," for instance, makes one think that all that's missing from this (very) belated bachelorette party is a male stripper. And as much as the show makes its largely 40-plus female audience feel more comfortable about getting older, it doesn't go far enough. Menopause is euphemistically referred to as "the change," which just seems to reinforce taboos. And its obsession with shopping, sex, and cellulite makes Menopause feel a lot like a geriatric issue of Cosmo. Rather than empowering women, the musical ends up underscoring clichés. In an open-ended run at Theatre 39, Pier 39, Beach & Embarcadero, S.F. Tickets are $46.50; call 433-3939 or visit (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed Jan. 11. Sex, Lies and Instant Messaging! "I'm barfing out the story -- unabridged!" That's how actor/writer Leslie Beam explains it in her one-woman show This self-declared "queen of cyberland" takes us on a 66-minute journey through a small sampling of more than 300 badly matched Internet dates after the breakup of her 13-year marriage (he was obsessed with football and bong rips; she was consumed with computer-sex chat rooms). Beam gets props for hanging out her dirty laundry: Onstage she brandishes her favorite sex toys (including a 3-foot-long Black & Decker vibrator), shows us dungeon floggings, makes fun of gimp-armed lovers, complains about fat people, and confesses to multiple dates with a convict tattooed with the words "white pride." Any sympathy she generates sours when she lightheartedly reveals her prejudice, recounting her ghastly treatment of an innocent date solely because he was black. She doesn't delve into her discrimination or give it any particular reason or depth; she simply tries for a laugh. Later she turns down another black cybersuitor, responding that she hasn't yet "exhausted the entire pool of eligible white men." In trying to illuminate the human and humorous side of Internet dating, Beam delivers a one-dimensional portrayal of herself and caricatures of her dates, seeming intent on proving that the Web is filled with a disproportionate number of weirdos and psychos. Through April 29 at the Shelton Theater, 533 Sutter (between Mason and Powell), S.F. Tickets are $25; call 820-1454 or visit (Nathaniel Eaton) Reviewed March 1.

The Tribute to Frank, Sammy, Joey & Dean. Sandy Hackett's swingin' tribute to the Rat Pack takes us back to a time when men wore tuxedos in the desert, women could be one of two things (a lady or a tramp), and Celine Dion was just a golden apple in Las Vegas' hungry eye. Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Joey Bishop, and Dean Martin are brought back to life by God -- and the talents of a quartet of impersonators -- for one more night of highballing at the Sands Hotel. The concert-style production, featuring a live 12-piece band, perfectly captures the spirit of a long-lost era -- from Johnny Edwards' (or Andy DiMino's) glossy Dean Martin pompadour to what would now be considered terribly un-PC gaffes about black Jews. These particular tribute artists aren't necessarily dead ringers for Frank and company, but if you close your eyes and listen to Tom Tiratto's silk-voiced renditions of "My Way" and "Come Fly With Me," you almost feel like you've been transported, martini in hand, to another time and place. In an open-ended run at the Marines' Memorial Theatre, 609 Sutter (at Mason), S.F. Tickets are $38-70; call 771-6900 or visit (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed Aug. 24, 2005.

Also Playing

100 Years of Sex-Acts Exit Theatre on Taylor, 277 Taylor (at Ellis), 673-3847.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee Post Street Theatre, 450 Post (at Mason), 321-2900.

Anna in the Tropics Lucie Stern Theater, 1305 Middlefield (at Embarcadero), Palo Alto, 650-903-6000.

Arrhythmica Exit Stage Left, 156 Eddy (between Taylor & Mason), 673-3847.

The Bartered Bride Florence Gould Theater, 34th Ave. & Clement (Palace of the Legion of Honor), 863-3330.

Beach Blanket Babylon Club Fugazi, 678 Green (at Powell), 421-4222.

Beyond Therapy Shelton Theater, 533 Sutter (at Powell), 931-8385.

Bright Ideas The Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby (at MLK Jr.), Berkeley, 510-841-6500.

Culture Clash's Zorro in Hell Berkeley Repertory's Thrust Stage, 2025 Addison (at Shattuck), Berkeley, 510-647-2949.

Dick n' Dubya Show The Marsh, 1062 Valencia (at 22nd St.), 826-5750.

Disaster Series Noh Space, 2840 Mariposa (at Florida), 621-7978.

Eyes of Babylon New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness (at Market), 861-8972.

Farmyard Last Planet Theatre, 351 Turk (at Hyde), 440-3505.

I Just Stopped by to See the Man Lorraine Hansberry Theatre, 620 Sutter (at Mason), 474-8800.

Ice-Breaker Magic Theatre, Fort Mason, Bldg. D, Marina & Buchanan, 441-8822.

Imagination Unleashed Blue Bear Performance Hall, Fort Mason, Bldg. D, Marina & Buchanan, 885-5678.

Juan Gelion Dances for the Sun Traveling Jewish Theatre, 470 Florida (at Mariposa), 285-8282.

Kung Fu Evangelist Dark Room Theater, 2263 Mission (at 18th St.), 401-7987.

Love at First Sight: An Improvised Romantic Comedy Off-Market Theater, 965 Mission (at Fifth St.), 896-6477.

Love Letters Off-Market Theater, 965 Mission (at Fifth St.), 896-6477.

Love's Labour's Lost Exit Theatre, 156 Eddy (at Taylor), 673-3847.

Luna The Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby (at MLK Jr.), Berkeley, 510-841-6500.

Monday Night Improv Jam Off-Market Theater, 965 Mission (at Fifth St.), 368-9909.

Morbidity and Mortality Magic Theatre, Fort Mason, Bldg. D, Marina & Buchanan, 441-8822.

The Night of the Iguana Actors Theatre San Francisco, 533 Sutter (at Powell), 296-9179.

On the Bum Zeum Theater, 221 Fourth St. (at Howard), 820-3320.

Our Lady of 121st Street SF Playhouse, 536 Sutter (at Powell), 677-9596.

Peter and the Wolf Young Performers Theater, Bldg. C Fort Mason (Marina & Buchanan), 346-5550.

Revolving Madness Climate Theater, 285 Ninth St. (at Folsom), 863-1076.

Shopping! The Musical Shelton Theater, 533 Sutter (at Powell), 931-8385.

Swan Lake Orpheum Theater, 1192 Market (at Eighth St.), 512-7770.


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