Our critics weigh in on local theater

Family Alchemy: Malamud & Paley Stories on Stage. In order for theater to deliver on its rarely achieved promise of a transcendent live experience that no television show or movie can rival, all the disparate elements of a production must magically fuse together. This doesn't happen often, but Traveling Jewish Theatre is working diligently to discover the formula. In the confident hands of the four-member cast headed by two of TJT's founders, Naomi Newman and Corey Fischer -- both seasoned and talented actors -- three short stories by celebrated Jewish authors Grace Paley and Bernard Malamud are performed exactly as written, with all the "he said"/"she said" third-person narration left intact, the whole thing woven together by the keen eye of director Joel Mullennix. The first, "Mother," features a daughter bringing her dead mom back to life by vividly recalling simple moments around the house. In "The Story Hearer," we eavesdrop on urban tales and meet wonderfully realized characters (several played by the feisty Jeri Lynn Cohen) during a day's walk through 1970s New York City. Finally, "The Magic Barrel" introduces San Francisco newcomer Max Gordon Moore, burning with joyous intensity as Leo, a young rabbi in training who hires a marriage broker (a transformed and hollow-faced Fischer) to find him a wife, and in the hilarious process finds his faith. Short story as theater is a risky endeavor, but TJT never drops the ball, and the result is pure storytelling -- simplified, thrilling, and vigorously reinvented, a slap in the face to anyone who has ever said theater is dead. Through March 12 at the Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby (at MLK), Berkeley, and March 16-19 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro (at Mercy), Mountain View. Tickets are $12-35; call 522-0786 or visit (Nathaniel Eaton) Reviewed Feb. 15.

In on It. If a comedy duo is defined as the combination of two physical and emotional opposites, then Glenn Peters and Ian Scott McGregor -- "This One" and "That One," respectively, in Daniel MacIvor's dense and fascinating exploration of the hairline fissure between living and dying, laughing and crying, and stopping and ending -- fit the mandate so perfectly that they almost seem like a caricature of a double act. Moving fluidly between three different states -- "the show," in which the partners discuss and rehearse a play written by This One and talk about their relationship; "the play," in which the events of the aforementioned drama unfold; and "the past," in which the couple rehash how they first met and got together -- McGregor and Peters deftly roam a metatheatrical landscape that's as deliberately self-conscious as it is off-the-cuff funny. The effect is rather like watching a Pirandello play as reimagined by Monty Python. Blending MacIvor's whirling dialogue and punctilious directing with punch-drunk performances from McGregor and Peters, In on It recalls the vital connection between comedy and tragedy and reminds us just how removed we've become from understanding the conflicting impulses within ourselves. Through March 12 at the Thick House, 1695 18th St. (between Arkansas and De Haro), S.F. Tickets are $20-25; call 821-4849 or visit (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed Feb. 15.

The Master Builder. Psychological and expressionistic readings of Hilde Wangel, the strange young woman who pitches up in the middle of the first act of Henrik Ibsen's 1892 drama about a middle-aged architect's ill-fated attempt to stem the onrush of time, abound. For some directors and critics, Hilde is a siren; for others, she's a troll. But a masterful new production by the Aurora Theatre Company leads me to believe that she may be something else entirely: a projection of an old man's most lurid fantasies. Lauren Grace is no Lolita (she looks at least 22), yet she portrays Hilde (or Hilda, in Paul Walsh's elegant translation) as if viewed through the eyes of a Humbert Humbert. When the character first bounces onstage in a jaunty little Scandinavian mountain outfit, sparkling like a lucky penny, she resembles a pensioner's wet dream. She's as wholesome as Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music. I half expected her to break into song. Director Barbara Oliver's production is well balanced and sensitively acted -- an eloquent exploration of weighty Ibsenite themes such as the opposition of will and luck and the tension between youth and age. Yet it's still difficult to make sense of this slippery character. Through March 12 at the Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison (at Shattuck), Berkeley. Tickets are $38; call (510) 843-4822 or visit (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed Feb. 22.

Menopause the Musical. Set in Bloomingdale's department store, this 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. 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 (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed Jan. 11.

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