Our critics weigh in on local theater

Cabaret. John Kander and Fred Ebb's 1966 musical hit possesses the two main ingredients of a best-seller: sex and violence. Cabaret follows the adventures of Clifford Bradshaw, a young American writer who pitches up penniless in Weimar Berlin and quickly succumbs to the topsy-turvy hedonism of the local nightlife, not to mention the wiles of the ditsy British expat and cabaret performer Sally Bowles. While many productions tend to emphasize sex over violence, creating an aphrodisiac of gyrating Fräuleins in falling bra straps, Shotgun Players' take, directed by Russell Blackwood (of Hypnodrome fame) and featuring a live five-piece band, adds blood to the collection of bodily juices flowing onstage. The aggression builds to a crescendo through insidious attention to detail and the liberal use of Brechtian alienation techniques. Sometimes the references to fear, such as the pianist's Führer-like bark of "Eins, zwei, drei, vier!" at the start of each song, are so subtle they barely register. Elsewhere, Blackwood's terror tactics are bolder. For example, when Nazi roughnecks beat up Bradshaw (Cassidy Brown), it's no surprise to see Clive Worsley's sinister Emcee rouging his cheeks with the victim's blood. If life is a cabaret, old chum, then it's modeled on the Hypnodrome. Through Jan. 29 at the Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby (at MLK), Berkeley. Tickets are $15-30; call (510) 841-6500 or visit www.shotgunplayers.org. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed Jan. 4.

Menopause the Musical. Set in Bloomingdale's department store, the play unites four contrasting female characters -- an Iowa housewife, an executive, a soap star, and a hippie -- through the combined forces of cut-price lingerie and hormone replacement therapy. Singing doctored versions of 1960s and '70s pop favorites like "Stayin' Alive" ("Stayin' Awake") and "Puff, the Magic Dragon" ("Puff, My God I'm Draggin'"), the ladies potter from floor to floor, sharing their worst menopausal hang-ups as they try on clothes, rifle through sales racks, and run in and out of the store's many strategically placed powder rooms. Although Menopause is entertaining and energetically performed, it's unabashedly tacky. An ode to the delights of masturbation, sung down a pink microphone to an adaptation of the Beach Boys' "Good Vibrations," for instance, makes one think that all that's missing from this (very) belated bachelorette party is a male stripper. And as much as the show makes its largely 40-plus female audience feel more comfortable about getting older, it doesn't go far enough. The word "menopause" is euphemistically referred to as "the change," which just seems to reinforce taboos. And its obsession with shopping, sex, and cellulite makes Menopause feel a lot like a geriatric issue of Cosmo. Rather than empowering women, the musical ends up underscoring clichés. In an open-ended run at Theatre 39, Pier 39, Beach & Embarcadero, S.F. Tickets are $46.50; call 433-3939 or visit www.menopausethemusical.com. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed Jan. 11.

Walkin' Talkin' Bill Hawkins. W. Allen Taylor teeters on the edge between therapy and art in his intriguing one-man show about his search for the father he never knew -- who turned out to be Bill Hawkins, the first black disc jockey in Cleveland. Hawkins doesn't appear onstage till the last moment, but Taylor pieces him together through compellingly acted characters reminiscing about his dad, and intersperses it all with an eclectically delicious soundtrack celebrating the legacy of black radio. Taylor is a College of Marin theater teacher and skilled Broadway veteran who particularly shines in his riveting portrayals of older women (including his protective mother) and of the hepcat DJ who embodies the author's bittersweet voice of anger and curiosity. But the show, in development for more than six years, lacks a compellingly urgent narrative flow and offers little emotional insight into the central fixation, Bill Hawkins. It works more as an interesting history of '40s and '50s Cleveland radio and as a peephole into a local performer's life work, searching for -- and perhaps never finding -- his father. Through Jan. 28 at the Marsh Berkeley, 2118 Allston (at Shattuck), Berkeley. Tickets are $15-22; call (800) 838-3006 or visit www.themarsh.org. (Nathaniel Eaton) Reviewed Jan. 11.

Walking the Dead. A striking woman dressed in black greets arriving guests with formality. Her cordial reception is the first clue that we've bought tickets to a memorial service. The intimate room at the Berkeley City Club is infused with the awkward shuffling and whispering of a sparsely attended funeral. A small cast takes the stage, where Maya, stoic lover of the deceased and hostess of the event, begins reminiscing about Veronica. Suddenly, the cast erupts into simultaneous ranting at full volume, and it's clear this is going to be messier than a traditional tribute. Veronica and Maya relive their pivotal scenes of turbulent self-discovery alongside Chess, a sheepishly endearing friend of the lesbian couple, and Dottie, Veronica's disparaging mother. Tangential tales introduce us to others: Bobby, an insightful, sardonic source of comic relief; Dr. Drum, the therapist who challenges Veronica's desire to become physiologically male; and Stan, a filmmaker who exploits her story. Since honoring Veronica's life is a different process for each character, tension permeates the service. While our proximity to the action enables some emotional connections that appear truthfully passionate and human, more often such instances feel staged and contrived, perhaps intentionally. Geared toward mature audiences, this lengthy, well-cast play grapples with controversial themes from gay stereotyping to trans surgery. An important piece, though far from uplifting. Through Jan. 29 at the Berkeley City Club, 2315 Durant (at Ellsworth), Berkeley. Tickets are $15-20; call (510) 326-8197 or visit www.theatreq.org. (Emily Forbes) Reviewed Jan. 11.

 
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