Go on, look in the mirror. That dread you felt when Wal-Mart started positioning those horrible singing-and-dancing Santa statuettes in its aisles the first week in November – see how it's turned to black rings under your eyes while your ears ring with incessant carols and your stomach roils from too many party cocktails and snacks? If you think you've experienced true nausea already, just wait until the news networks' maudlin and manipulative "Christmas for our soldiers in Iraq" angle kicks in. Festive, we're not.
For a pre-emptive vaccine against the virus of compulsory holiday cheer, it's tough to beat a performance of humorist David Sedaris' play The Santaland Diaries. Based on the writer's nightmarish experiences working as an elf at a Macy's branch in Manhattan, Santaland morphed from a biting short piece that Sedaris first read on National Public Radio in 1992 to a hilarious full-fledged stage adaptation by Joe Mantello that's performed annually for the seasonally sickened nationwide. Playing Sedaris' thinking-human-turned-denigrated-temp-worker for the second year in a row, local actor John Michael Beck sneers his way through a chaotic tableau of screeching brats, pushy line-weary parents, and apathetic and/or aggressive Santas. The frenzy comes together under the able direction of Jeffrey Hartgraves (most prominently known for A Beautiful Man, which won Best of Fringe at the 2003 festival).
Bringing psychological fortitude to the Grinchy masses, The Santaland Diaries opens tonight at 8 (and runs through Dec. 21) at the Shelton Theater, 533 Sutter (at Powell), S.F. Admission is $20; call 846-3424 or visit www.sheltontheater.com.
– Ron Nachmann
There are some sweet sounds emanating from the Mission District this weekend: Tipsy Cuban rumba, syncopated South American cumbia, frenetic flamenco, groovy Latin jazz – played by musicians who hail from as many different parts of the Spanish-speaking world as their rhythms. Encuentro del Canto Popular (Encounters With Popular Song)is on again, and once more the two-day festival features a multitude of diverse acts, from the fierce Afro-Cuban beats of New York's Yerba Buena to the high-energy Caribbean dance music of Santa Cruz stalwarts Broken English. Listen up starting at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday at Korinthias Community Center, 245 Valencia (at Duboce), S.F. Admission is $12-20; call 648-1045 or visit www.accionlatina.org.
– Joyce Slaton
Fred Frith's standard deviation
It's not hard for a musician to get trapped within the constraints of his genre, and crossing over into other realms means diving headlong into sink-or-swim territory, critically and commercially. One way around this dilemma is never to commit to a genre at all – the peculiar nomadic musicianship to which guitar genius Fred Frithappears to have prescribed. He plays what he wants, how he wants, and with whom he wants, making it impossible for anyone to label or categorize him. Frith's eclectic résumé includes his stint with '70s jazzy-noodlers Henry Cow/Slapp Happy, a professorship of composition at Mills College, and a multitude of other projects such as myriad improvisational outings and a gig playing bass with John Zorn's Naked City. Experience the unexpected at 8 p.m. at Cafe Du Nord, 2170 Market (at Sanchez), S.F. Admission is $12; call 861-5016 or visit www.cafedunord.com.
– Kevin Chanel
Song of Damian
New play gets drama from tragedy
The heavily researched Trucker Rhapsody is award-winning playwright Toni Press-Coffman's ode to an unlikely protagonist, Damian Williams. In the rage-filled days after four white Los Angeles police officers were acquitted of beating African-American motorist Rodney King – though the event had been caught on videotape – Williams responded by (and was imprisoned for) assaulting white truck driver Reginald Denny. Investigating, Press-Coffman found interesting truths: Denny testified at Williams' trial, essentially on the young man's behalf, and later struck up a friendship with Williams' mother; 10 years later, Press-Coffman spun those truths into a play.
Based on interviews with Williams, the production includes video projections, graffiti art, and an elaborate sound and music design. Tonight's performance adds a post-show discussion on "Theater, Race, and the Imagination." Trucker Rhapsody begins at 8 p.m. (and runs through Dec. 13) at Exit Stage Left, 156 Eddy (between Taylor and Mason), S.F. Admission is $15-20; call 821-2418 or visit www.firstseen.org.
– Hiya Swanhuyser
In every genre of music, there are practitioners whose talent earns them respect not only from their peers, but also from people who don't even like the music they play. Fareed Haque has been a star of the jam-rock scene for years, but his way with a guitar helps him transcend his category, as Django Reinhardt and Andrés Segovia did. For a long time, Haque made his home with jam superstars Garaj Mahal, but he's now on his own with the Fareed Haque Group, a multicultural ensemble that reflects the leader's eclectic international style. The "energized jazz funk" begins at 9:30 p.m. both nights at the Boom Boom Room, 1601 Fillmore (at Geary), S.F. Admission is $12; call 673-8000 or visit www.boomboomblues.com.
– Hiya Swanhuyser