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Our critics weigh in on local theater

Back of the Throat. Two Homeland Security investigators (James Reese and Paul Santiago) pay an Arab-American man, Khaled (James Asher), a visit. As one investigator pokes around Khaled's squalid studio apartment looking for God knows what and the other asks bizarre questions about the bookish young man's taste in literature and favorite pastimes, Khaled's mood switches from cordiality to fear. There is much to savor in this production: Director Tony Kelly elegantly handles the play's numerous digressions into the past, creating an appropriately nightmarish quality for this Kafka-esque drama about guilt and suspicion. The actors achieve a fine balance between innocuous humor and menacing darkness against James Faerron's versatile set. Unfortunately, what starts out as an intriguing standoff between two grotesquely comic-book-like suits and a shifty-eyed intellectual winds up being little more than a predictable tirade against the U.S. government's maniacal internal security strategies. Yussef El Guindi is a skillful playwright; I only wish he could have found a more original premise through which to view this administration's misguided soul. Through May 15 at the Thick House, 1695 18th St. (between Arkansas and De Haro), S.F. Tickets are $15-25; call 401-8081 or visit www.thickdescription.org. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed May 4.

Lennon. In the publicity materials that accompany this new Broadway-bound musical, writer/director Don Scardino describes the show as a "visually stunning search for the real John Lennon." Yet if someone unfamiliar with the legendary singer/songwriter were to see it, Lennon's role as the founding member of the most celebrated pop band of all time would probably be lost on him. Packed with events from Lennon's non-Beatles existence and focusing on his relationship with second wife Yoko Ono, the musical barely acknowledges his association with the Fab Four. Lennon also attempts to distinguish itself via its casting. Instead of giving the title role to one actor, the production aims to personify the artist's "oneness" with the world by having actors of both sexes and assorted ethnicities and ages play Lennon. The nine cast members provide polished, spirited performances, but the production doesn't follow through on its conceit: Two of the players -- the suitably cute, youthful, and mop-topped Will Chase and Chad Kimball -- don the ubiquitous Lennon-style "granny" glasses with far greater frequency than the others. As a result, the casting satisfies neither Scardino's grand idea nor our desire to feel connected to the central character. Through May 14 at the Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market (at Eighth Street), S.F. Tickets are $35-85; call 512-7770 or visit www.lennonthemusical.com. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed May 4.

Not a Genuine Black Man. It's not easy being green, but try being a black kid in San Leandro in the early '70s. When Brian Copeland got there -- just a few months after the Summer of Love, he points out -- it was one of the most viciously racist suburbs in America. Now it's officially the most diverse. "Take that, San Francisco," Copeland chides. He's earned that attitude, not just for going through his hell of growing up, but also for extracting from it such affirmative, hilarious stuff. Copeland's rightfully popular one-man show is wrought from pain and rage but never really succumbs to bitterness. "Is that black?" he asks, and proves that it is. Some of his best stereotype-busting material doesn't feel especially new, but it does feel good. Besides, it's the stereotypes that have passed their expiration dates: Copeland's title comes from an accusation flung at him by a cranky listener who called in to his KGO radio program. This show is his response. With help from declarative lighting and David Ford's direction, Copeland creates an affecting hybrid of the dramatic monologue and the rollicking stand-up act. Through May 28 at the Marsh, 1062 Valencia (at 22nd Street), S.F. Tickets are $15-22; call 826-5750 or visit www.themarsh.org. (Jonathan Kiefer) Reviewed June 2, 2004.

The People's Temple. It's easy to understand why so many people flocked to hear the Rev. Jim Jones preach. As depicted in Berkeley Rep's world-premiere production of The People's Temple, Jones, the leader of the cultish church, is charisma personified, a hip cat in dark shades and sharp suits with unbelievable powers of persuasion. Using archival material from the California Historical Society, evangelical songs, and interviews with former Temple-goers, writer and director Leigh Fondakowski (The Laramie Project) has created an engrossing documentary piece about the events that led to the deaths of more than 900 people in a Guyana jungle in 1978. Playing against Sarah L. Lambert's expressive scenery (resembling a cross between a morgue and a Container Store window display), the ensemble cast does more than portray Jones, congregation members, journalists, politicians, and families; the actors also capture the spirit of an entire era, from racial unrest to hippie euphoria. Besides the problem of creating real drama out of narrated interviews (which Fondakowski somewhat overcomes), only one issue remains: Jones swings from messiah to monster, but the play offers little explanation as to why. Through May 29 at Berkeley Repertory's Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison (at Shattuck), Berkeley. Tickets are $10-55; call (510) 647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed May 4.

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 May 29 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.

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