Our critics weigh in on local theater

The Black Eyed. This play by Palestinian-American Betty Shamieh is a chillingly beautiful piece about the relationship between violence and seduction. In Shamieh's poetic-apocalyptic vision of the afterlife, four Palestinian women from different historical periods hang about in limbo, awaiting admittance to "The Martyrs' Room," where they hope to find answers to the questions that haunt them. Suicide bomber Aiesha (Nora El Samahy) claims to have already been inside the room to receive her reward of sex with 100 men, yet is tormented by the thought of the innocent people who died the day she detonated herself; Delilah (Sofia Ahmad), feeling betrayed since she famously seduced and depowered Samson, longs to be reunited with her lover; Tamam (Bridgette Loriaux), a rape victim from the time of the Crusades, is driven by vengeance against her attackers but is also desperate to see her brother again; and a young woman known simply as Architect (Atosa Babaoff) fantasizes about seducing her potential boss before dying in a plane hijacking. Director Jessica Heidt's sensitive use of space and movement conveys the majesty, irony, and lyricism of Shamieh's work. Bouncing bits of text among themselves as if playing a game of catch, the tantalizing cast members both tempt and repel us in this whirling dervish of a show. Through June 19 at the Magic Theatre Northside, Fort Mason Center, Marina & Buchanan, S.F. Tickets are $20-38; call 441-8822 or visit www.magictheatre.org. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed June 8.

Charlie Cox Runs With Scissors. From the scythe-wielding Grim Reaper of folklore to Brad Pitt's turn as the deathly Joe Black in the movie Meet Joe Black, culture is constantly coming up with new ways to personify mortality. In Marin Theatre Company's production of Michael McKeever's Charlie Cox Runs With Scissors, the character of Death can perhaps best be described as a wisecracking pixie crossed with Robert Smith of the Cure. Upon discovering he has only 18 months to live, book editor Cox (Howard Swain) finds himself confronting death in an unusual way when he picks up a black-clad, spiky-haired teen (Liam Vincent) hitching a ride to, as his sign reads, "Nowhere" on a lonely desert road in Arizona. McKeever's affable but rather simplistic play belongs to that most underpopulated of genres: feel-good dramas about dying. Though packed with snappy one-liners and effervescent performances (particularly from Swain and Anne Darragh as the widowed owner of a dilapidated desert motel), Charlie Cox more lollops than runs. Through June 19 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller (at Evergreen), Mill Valley. Tickets are $28-46; call 388-5208 or visit www.marintheatre.org. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed June 8.

Cherry Docs. In David Gow's gritty drama (whose title refers to the cherry red Dr. Martens boots popularly worn by skinheads), an ambitious lawyer, Danny (Aaron Davidman), improbably decides to defend a young neo-Nazi, Mike (Eric Rhys Miller), who's being held in solitary confinement in a Canadian prison for murdering a Hindu man. Interspersing lyrical speeches on Jewish ritual with dark thoughts about life in jail, Gow's writing is as hardheaded as it is poetic. Although Davidman doesn't quite convince us of his character's reasons for taking on the case in the first place, both actors give carefully drawn, purposeful performances. Davidman makes for a suitably nebbishy, tortured lawyer, while Rhys Miller's Mike is all pinched-faced cynicism and snarling hate. The play's structure -- which goes something like this: monologue-monologue-dialogue, monologue-monologue-dialogue, etc. -- gets somewhat tedious after a while. Naomi Newman's direction brings out the emotional struggle and the ideological contradictions in Gow's play, but does little to alleviate the monotony of its rhythm. Through June 19 at the Julia Morgan Center for the Arts, 2640 College (at Ashby), Berkeley. Tickets are $12-35; call 285-8080 or visit www.atjt.com. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed June 1.

Here Lies Jenny. Bebe Neuwirth has an unusual voice. It's not what you would call beautiful. In Here Lies Jenny, a showcase of loosely knit songs by German composer Kurt Weill, she sounds a bit like a sheep nursing a hangover. Weill's songs have long been favorites of many a diva, with artists as diverse as German chanteuse Ute Lempe and operatic soprano Dawn Upshaw bringing their own particular qualities to the composer's brazenly sweet melodies and galumphing accompaniments. Although the Tony Award-winning Neuwirth is a charismatic, intense performer, the songs all sound rather similar: There's surprisingly little variety in the star's delivery. The show combines the talents of several Broadway luminaries -- including director Roger Rees, choreographer Ann Reinking, and set designer Neil Patel -- but for all the talent it feels cobbled together. Patel's dingy European speak-easy is evocative enough, but Reinking's movements are predictably camp, leaving Neuwirth frequently falling into the arms of some muscle-bound, wife beater-wearing stud. As a vehicle for one of this country's most prominent musical theater artists, Here Lies Jenny lacks drive. Through June 26 at the Post Street Theatre, 450 Post (at Powell), S.F. Tickets are $35-55; call 771-6900 or visit www.poststreettheatre.com. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed May 18.

I Look Like an Egg, But I Identify as a Cookie. In her solo show, Heather Gold recounts the journey from Niagara Falls (where she spent the first 19 years of her life) to her current role as San Francisco's resident lesbian domestic goddess -- while baking a batch of chocolate chip cookies in front of a live audience. Even as she's plunking bits of soggy dough onto a battered metal baking tray and babbling on about her rugby-playing days as a law student at Yale, Gold, wielding her remarkable improvisation skills, creates an atmosphere of cozy intimacy. Certain parts of her monologue ramble on for too long, but even during the show's most half-baked moments, it's easy to understand why the audience gets so involved: Gold makes for an endearingly slapdash cook. Each performance involves a special guest, and it's a sheer pleasure to see a food-themed show that's not about battling one's body image (as is so often the case with productions by female artists -- e.g., Eve Ensler's The Good Body) and a program stuffed with recipes for delicacies like gingersnaps and caramel chocolate squares. Through June 27 at Hotel Rex, 562 Sutter (between Powell and Mason), S.F. Tickets are $30-50; call (800) 838-3006 or visit www.subvert.com. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed Jan. 12.

Macbeth. Sigmund Freud's ghost haunts Cutting Ball Theater's production of Macbeth with far greater persistence than Banquo's. Before the play even begins, our eyes are greeted with an intensely psychological space. Set designer Michael Locher's trim, brightly lit, white performing area bordered by five white doors brings a padded cell more readily to mind than a wind-swept Scottish moor. Doors are portals into Macbeth's mind, and the production pays little attention to what's going on in the outside world. Although the Freudian symbolism (dead babies, characters with split personalities, etc.) feels heavy-handed in places, this Macbeth is intriguing, intellectually involving, visually imaginative, and -- best of all -- funny. Garth Petal is a formidable presence as Macbeth. He brings out, with impeccable comic timing, the dark humor in his character. Despite its strengths, however, the production suffers from trying to incorporate too many ideas. The six-actor cast only exacerbates the confusion: Having each actor play several roles cleverly emphasizes the work's internal landscape, but if you don't know Macbeth very well, it's easy to get lost. Through July 16 (but no performances the weekend of June 17-18) at the Exit on Taylor, 277 Taylor (between Eddy and Ellis), S.F. Tickets are $20-25; call 419-3584 or visit www.cuttingball.com. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed June 1.

The Mambo Kings. The intoxicating display of luminescence that lighting designers Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer have produced in the world-premiere production of The Mambo Kings conveys the passion and energy of the 1950s Latin music scene, but many of the play's other elements -- most conspicuously the script -- fail. Based on Oscar Hijuelos' Pulitzer Prizewinning 1989 novel The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love (as well as the 1992 movie starring Antonio Banderas), the musical tells the story of two brothers who sail from their native Cuba to seek their fortunes in New York City's burgeoning mambo scene. But while the novel derives much of its power from the contrast between the two characters, the musical version flattens the differences. Hijuelos and co-author/director Arne Glimcher (who also directed the movie version of the book) instead concentrate on evoking the infectious rhythms of Latin music. And ultimately, the show is more about the suggestive unfurling of a silk stockinged leg and the sway of the cha-cha than the poor script, with its puerile lines and clodhopping plot. Through June 19 at the Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor (at Market), S.F. Tickets are $25-85; call 512-7770 or visit www.bestofbroadway-sf.com. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed June 8.

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 June 25 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 Rules of Charity. John Belluso's engrossing new play describes what it's like to eke out a living in America on meager disability checks and food stamps. If poverty isn't enough to define Monty (Warren David Keith) -- whose cerebral palsy keeps him confined to a wheelchair and his daughter confined to the state of permanent caregiver -- as a social pariah, the fact that he's gay ought to do it. Belluso's writing veers into the terrain of soap opera toward the end, but it's powerful stuff nonetheless. Exploring the way Monty (both as an individual and as an archetypal American charity case) elicits polar responses from the other characters, this stylishly directed and subtly performed production shows how acts of generosity and good will often have little in common with the motives that lie beneath them. Through June 18 at the Magic Theatre Northside, Fort Mason, Marina & Buchanan, S.F. Tickets are $20-38; call 441-8822 or visit www.magictheatre.org. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed May 11.

Also Playing

Are We Almost There? Shelton Theater, 533 Sutter (at Powell), 433-3040.

Art SF Playhouse, 536 Sutter (at Powell), 677-9596.

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

Beyond Therapy Shelton Theater, 533 Sutter (at Powell), 433-3040.

The Goat or, Who Is Sylvia? Geary Theater, 415 Geary (at Mason), 749-2228.

Hothouse Magic Theatre, Fort Mason, Bldg. D (Marina & Buchanan), 441-8822.

Legacies Untied Lust Unleashed Buriel Clay Theater, 762 Fulton (at Webster), 861-8208.

Les Miserables Curran Theatre, 445 Geary (between Taylor and Mason), 551-2000.

Medea: The Musical Theatre Rhinoceros, 2926 16th St. (at South Van Ness), 861-5079.

Menopause the Musical Theatre 39 at Pier 39, 2 Beach (Beach & Embarcadero), 433-3939.

San Francisco Improv Festival The Next Stage, 1620 Gough (at Bush) (Trinity Episcopal Church), 863-1076.

Shed a Little Light: The Music of James Taylor Zeum Theater, 221 Fourth St. (at Howard), 749-2228.

some life Exit Theatre, 156 Eddy (at Taylor), 673-3847.

Someday, Love New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness (at Market), 861-8972.

Whoop-Dee-Doo! New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness (at Market), 861-8972.

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