Encore

Our critics weigh in on local theater

Not About Nightingales. From allegations of misconduct against prisoners of war at Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo to the approval of Arnold Schwarzenegger's latest plan to overhaul California's penitentiaries, the U.S. prison system is coming under more scrutiny these days than it has for a while. Like the Actors Theatre's recent production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Theatre Rhinoceros' harrowing staging of Tennessee Williams' Not About Nightingales brings the subject of prison reform firmly into focus. Written in 1938 and based upon true events, this explicit drama describes the grisly outcome of a prison hunger strike. Nightingales is an early Williams work, and the playwright would later learn that offstage violence can be more powerful than onstage brutality: We don't see Blanche raped in A Streetcar Named Desire, for instance. With actor/director John Fisher's imaginative use of the dingy, subterranean space and some provocative performances -- Fisher as the foul warden Whelan and Pete Caslavka as prisoner Canary Jim are particularly memorable -- the production packs a powerful punch. However, in such an intimate setting, the relentless noise of clomping boots and yelling can be tiresome. Toning it down a notch would remove none of the impact. Through March 13 at Theatre Rhinoceros, 2926 16th St. (between Mission and South Van Ness), S.F. Tickets are $15-25; call 861-5079 or visit www.therhino.org. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed March 2.

Rush Limbaugh in Night School. Charlie Varon has revived and revamped his hilarious 1994 solo tour de force, a satire that may owe more than a little to Tom Stoppard's Travesties, about Rush Limbaugh and a cast of mostly still-relevant national figures from the left and right. When a conservative Latino radio host threatens Limbaugh's dominance in a Florida market, the potbellied pundit puts on a beard and enrolls in Spanish night classes (at the New School), where he falls in love with a fugitive ex-member of the Weather Underground. For obscure reasons Limbaugh also tries to play Othello in blackface, in a star-studded production featuring Garrison Keillor, directed by Spalding Gray. Things go predictably to hell. Varon's in full command of his characters; the voices are sharp, if not perfect; and his timing is hard to beat. But he and Limbaugh are both visibly older. Varon's point in 1994 was that Limbaugh had upended the whole idea of satire -- he'd turned a traditional weapon of the underprivileged into a tool of power, and the last 10 years have only shown how potent that strategy can be. Limbaugh was pretty much on his own in 1994; lately his talk-radio spawn have probably helped a) elect a new governor in California, and b) re-elect a president. Depressing. Through April 17 at the Marsh, 1062 Valencia (at 22nd Street), S.F. Tickets are $15-22; call 826-5750 or visit www.themarsh.org. (Michael Scott Moore) Reviewed Dec. 15, 2004.

Stairway to Heaven. The product of several years of development between the National Book Awardnominated poet, novelist, playwright, and performer Jessica Hagedorn and Campo Santo/Intersection for the Arts, this play tells the story of Nena, a worldly, middle-aged island woman and raving insomniac with a passion for cooking exotic dishes from her homeland. On a sleepless night spent wandering around the Tenderloin, she befriends a young homeless man, Mickey, whom she spots foraging for food in a dumpster. Mickey moves in with Nena and helps her write a book, a combination cookbook and memoir. Nena's already-hazy memories are thrown into further disorder when her twin sister, Fe, turns up unannounced following divorce No. 3. The cast does a beautiful job of giving form to the script's underdeveloped themes and plot points, but with so little to back up the seemingly random actions of the characters, it's hard to believe in them. Ultimately, not even highly intelligent performances can fully repair the missing steps in Hagedorn's Stairway. Through March 13 at Intersection for the Arts, 446 Valencia (between 15th and 16th streets), S.F. Tickets are $9-15; call 626-3311 or visit www.theintersection.org. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed March 2.

The Typographer's Dream. At the beginning of Encore Theatre Company's production of Adam Bock's play, we are introduced to three characters: a typographer, a geographer, and a stenographer, who proceed, with varying degrees of stiffness and eloquence, to enthuse about their jobs. Reportedly inspired in part by the 2 1/2 years Bock spent working at a graphic and Web design firm, this beautiful and strange comedy riffs on the relationship between people and their careers. Director Anne Kauffman and actors Aimée Guillot, Jamie Jones, and Michael Shipley gleefully demonstrate how the three characters match their chosen jobs, occasionally making them resemble -- through the unselfconscious eagerness with which they talk about their work -- the wacky types who populate the films of Christopher Guest. A whole branch of ham psychology exists around the business of matching "personality types" with appropriate careers. But Bock does more than demonstrate the influence of personality upon career choice; he also shows the reverse: how our career choices influence us. Through April 3 at the Thick House, 1695 18th St. (between Arkansas and De Haro), S.F. Tickets are $15-20; call 821-4849 or visit www.encoretheatrecompany.org. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed Feb. 16.

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