Our critics weigh in on local theater

Art. It's not hard to see why Yasmina Reza's play caused such a fuss when it appeared in Paris, London, New York, and just about everywhere else from the late 1990s onward. The tightly wound, bittersweet comedy in which three middle-aged friends, Yvan, Serge, and Marc, almost come to blows over a painting, is at one level about people's perceptions of art, and at another, the nature of human relationships. The Damien Hirst-size hype that surrounded the play a few years ago makes staging it today feel a bit like arriving at a costume ball just as the last guests are leaving, but SF Playhouse puts on a memorable afterparty. In many ways, Art is tailor-made for this company: Bill English, SF Playhouse's artistic director (who plays the role of Serge in the production), also happens to have designed some of the most stylish sets. The look for Art, which English created, is a study in clean angles and severe, understated elegance, like the interior of a Gucci store. The play is a wonderful chamber piece, too, perfect for performance in SF Playhouse's intimate yet airy space, by a trio of compelling actors. Keith Burkland is adorably shabby as the henpecked Yvan; dressed in a conservative blue pinstriped suit, Louis Parnell (Marc) is suitably outspoken and cynical; and English comes off as suave and ever so slightly smarmy as Serge, the dermatologist who buys the painting that sets the whole thing off. Director Robin Stanton's painterly blocking adds the final touch to this sublimely composed canvas. Through Sept. 3 at SF Playhouse, 536 Sutter (between Powell and Mason), S.F. Tickets are $30; call 677-9596 or visit www.sfplayhouse.org. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed July 6.

"Blood Bucket Ballyhoo." "Blood Bucket Ballyhoo," a triptych of Grand Guignol shorts adapted for schlock-horror impresarios Thrillpeddlers by Rob Keefe and Eddie Muller, explores the twilight zone of 19th-century French taste with the help of some of the most elaborate props you're ever likely to stumble across outside of a dominatrix convention. A rat-infested Museum of Horrors -- equipped with a real, working guillotine and a coffin for those unfortunate enough to be buried alive -- is the setting for Lips of the Damned, a story about a cuckolded husband's revenge upon his wayward wife and her lover, suggested by the 1906 French comedy La Veuve by Eugène Héros and Léon Abric. In The Drug (adapted from René Berton's La Drouge, first performed in 1930), a bored, high-class lady is forced to confront a hideously disfigured ex-lover one night in a seedy Oriental opium den. Blood splatters and prosthetic body parts fly, but the lady -- quite literally -- cannot keep her eyes off the man she once destroyed. And in A Slight Tingling (inspired by the 1907 comedy Les Opérations du Professeur Verdier by Elie de Bassan), a surgeon's daughter attempts to find a pair of lost surgical scissors in the bodies of three of her father's patients with the aid of an amazing magnetic contraption. Director Russell Blackwood and his cast of dedicatedly damned souls present a danse macabre of ketchup-red theatrics. "Blood Bucket Ballyhoo" is in the best of the worst of all possible tastes. Through Aug. 13 at the Hypnodrome, 575 10th St. (between Bryant and Division), S.F. Tickets are $18-69; call 248-1900 or visit www.hypnodrome.com. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed Aug. 3.

Doing Good. The San Francisco Mime Troupe's Doing Good takes its inspiration from John Perkins' controversial memoir Confessions of an Economic Hit Man. The book describes Perkins' years helping the U.S. government and multinational corporations coerce foreign leaders into serving U.S. foreign policy. The troupe's riff on Perkins' real-life John le Carréstyle thriller follows the lives of a young, white, middle-class American couple, James and Molly, and their complicity in the homeland's less-than-benign interests in nations as widespread as Ecuador, Iran, Indonesia, and Panama. To avoid military service in Vietnam in 1968, James marries Molly and the pair move to the remote village of Pobre, Ecuador, on Peace Corps business. Very soon, the couple's innocuous attempts at "doing good" through building schoolhouses and educating local women about childbirth are overtaken by the arrival of a major U.S. corporation, whose aim it is to bring Ecuador "out of the Dark Ages" by building infrastructure with loans calculated to cripple the local economy. Despite some snappy one-liners and the bombastic live musical accompaniment, there's unfortunately little of aesthetic merit in Doing Good to mitigate the terrifying obviousness of its bludgeoning message. Through Oct. 2 at various locations throughout Northern California. Tickets are free; call 285-1717 or visit www.sfmt.org. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed July 13.

Golda's Balcony. William Gibson's one-woman play stars Tovah Feldshuh as Golda Meir, the Russian-born and U.S.-raised Jew who rose to lead Israel during some of its darkest years. Flitting gracefully between scenes from Meir's youth in America and her years in the Middle East, it provides a hard-hitting counterpoint to the popular, oversentimentalized view in the U.S. of Meir as "Mommile Golda, who makes chicken soup for her soldiers." Feldshuh's Meir is unabashedly practical and deeply unfeminine. Stocky and rasp-voiced in a matronly wool suit and thick gray bun, Feldshuh is so down-to-earth that she seems rooted to it, unwaveringly clinging to the Promised Land as an old oak tree weathers a storm. Our first view of Feldshuh, stoically smoking cigarettes against the thunder and glare of gunfire, low-flying planes, and exploding bombs, is the image we take away of the character at the end. Golda's Balcony tells an important story. Not only does it depict a formidable woman and charismatic leader, but it also helps to humanize, albeit in a partisan way, a political problem of such immense proportions and complexity that it resists comprehension, let alone the possibility of solution. Through Aug. 13 at the Geary Theater, 415 Geary (at Mason), S.F. Tickets are $20-69; call 749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed Aug. 3.

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