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Our critics weigh in on local theater

Hush Up, Sweet Charlotte. The Bette Davis vehicle Hush ... Hush, Sweet Charlotte was widely panned when it appeared on movie screens in 1964. But it's funny how time can transform even the trashiest of movies into a cult classic. The film tells the story of Charlotte Hollis (Davis), an aging Southern belle, who asks her cousin and only living relative, Miriam Deering (Olivia de Havilland), to come to town to help her prevent the family home from being torn down to make way for a new bridge. Continuously haunted by the events of a fateful night in 1927 when her lover, John Mayhew, was gruesomely and mysteriously decapitated, Charlotte is victimized by her lurid memories, the local community, and her cousin Miriam. Initially produced in 1994 at the Victoria Theatre and currently in revival at the Lorraine Hansberry, Hush Up, Sweet Charlotte, Matthew Martin's stage adaptation of the film, not only celebrates the movie as a pageant of glorious camp, but also gives it a gorgeous makeover by sending it up through the flamboyant theatrics of two divine drag artists. Martin (Davis/Charlotte) and Varla Jean Merman (de Havilland/Miriam) are very different kinds of drag queens. When you put two performers of such remarkably contrasting qualities onstage, the gulf separating them from each other, from the film star personas they play, and from the basic characters in the plot becomes extravagantly exaggerated. Laughter is the only way to make sense of it all. Unfortunately, laughter is hard to sustain over more than two hours of what essentially boils down to relentless B-movie spoof. By the time you read this review, Merman will have left the show for a summer gig in Provincetown, to be replaced by Arturo Galster. Galster has some big shoes to fill, in both the literal and figurative sense. It will be interesting to see what he makes of Miriam Deering. Through Aug. 31 at the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre, 620 Sutter (at Mason), S.F. Tickets are $27-32; call 474-8800 or visit (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed June 29.

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 July 30 at the Marsh, 1062 Valencia (at 22nd Street), S.F. Tickets are $15-22; call 826-5750 or visit (Jonathan Kiefer) Reviewed June 2, 2004.

The Thousandth Night. Conceived and written especially for virtuoso solo performer Ron Campbell more than a decade ago by writer Carol Wolf, The Thousandth Night takes us back to the Nazi occupation of France in World War II. In the cheerless waiting room of a run-down, provincial train station some 50 miles east of Paris, Guy de Bonheur, a member of a disbanded touring theater troupe arrested by the Nazis for "propagating subversive materials," tries to win over an impassive bunch of gendarmes with his storytelling skills. To prove his innocence to the guards while the derailed death-camp train is being fixed, de Bonheur maniacally improvises one-man versions of some of his company's most popular theatrical productions -- stage adaptations of tales taken from the ancient Central Asian story collection The Thousand and One Nights. Vibrating with the same intensity as he did in his previous solo show, R. Buckminster Fuller: The History (and Mystery) of the Universe, Campbell portrays de Bonheur and each of the 37 fairy-tale characters in the French thespian's stories as expertly as a juggler setting dozens of plates spinning inconceivably fast in the air on impossibly long, thin poles. Such is the tautness of Campbell's acting, Wolf's writing, and Jessica Kubzansky's direction that the audience is not only completely drawn into de Bonheur's antics, but also plays an unwitting role in deciding the man's fate. Through July 24 at the Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison (at Shattuck), Berkeley. Tickets are $38; call (510) 843-4822 or visit (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed July 6.

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? did for the American theater in 1962 what Shelagh Delaney's A Taste of Honey did for its British equivalent just four years previously. Products of the postwar fracture of traditional family values and gender roles, both plays sent shock waves across their respective cultural landscapes and changed the face of theater forever. But while these days Delaney's play is considered a period piece and rarely performed, Actors Theatre's production (along with, of course, the recent highly lauded Broadway revival starring Bill Irwin and Kathleen Turner) proves Virginia Woolf to be as fresh today as it was when Albee wrote it. The caustically funny and darkly depraved drama takes place over the course of a booze-soaked night at the university campus home of middle-aged history professor George (Christian Phillips) and his wife, Martha (Julia McNeal), as they play cat and mouse with each other and their newbie guests, the twentysomething biology professor Nick (Daniel Hart Donoghue) and his wife, Honey (Tara Donoghue). The claustrophobic atmosphere of Biz Duncan's living room set enhances the intensity of the couples' relentless "fun and games." Combining incisive, rhythmic direction by Keith Phillips and Kenneth Vandenberg with crisp performances by all four cast members (Tara Donoghue is especially pathetic and hilarious as the "thin-hipped" Honey), Actors Theatre's Virginia Woolf expertly mines the complex nature of marital relationships. Through Sept. 3 at the Actors Theatre, 533 Sutter (between Powell and Mason), S.F. Tickets are $10-30; call 296-9179 or visit (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed June 22.

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