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 www.atjt.com. (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 www.encoretheatrecompany.org. (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 www.auroratheatre.org. (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 www.menopausethemusical.com. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed Jan. 11.

The Tribute to Frank, Sammy, Joey & Dean. Sandy Hackett's swingin' tribute to the Rat Pack takes us back to a time when men wore tuxedos in the desert, women could be one of two things (a lady or a tramp), and Celine Dion was just a golden apple in Las Vegas' hungry eye. Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Joey Bishop, and Dean Martin are brought back to life by God -- and the talents of a quartet of impersonators -- for one more night of highballing at the Sands Hotel. The concert-style production, featuring a live 12-piece band, perfectly captures the spirit of a long-lost era -- from Johnny Edwards' (or Andy DiMino's) glossy Dean Martin pompadour to what would now be considered terribly un-PC gaffs about black Jews. These particular tribute artists aren't necessarily dead ringers for Frank and company, but if you close your eyes and listen to Tom Tiratto's silk-voiced renditions of "My Way" and "Come Fly With Me," you almost feel like you've been transported, martini in hand, to another time and place. In an open-ended run at the Marines' Memorial Theatre, 609 Sutter (at Mason), S.F. Tickets are $38-70; call 771-6900 or visit www.marinesmemorialtheatre.com. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed Aug. 24, 2005.

Also Playing

100 Years of Sex-Acts Exit Theatre on Taylor, 277 Taylor (at Ellis), 673-3847.

1001 Beds New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness (at Market), 861-8972.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee Post Street Theatre, 450 Post (at Mason), 321-2900.

4 Adverbs Project Artaud Theater, 450 Florida (at 17th St.), 626-4370.

9 Parts of Desire Berkeley Repertory's Thrust Stage, 2025 Addison (at Shattuck), Berkeley, 510-647-2949.

Actors Reading Writers Berkeley City Club, 2315 Durant (at Ellsworth), Berkeley, 510-843-4822.

Angels in America: Millennium Approaches Diego Rivera Theater/CCSF, 50 Phelan (at Judson), 239-3100.

Around the World in 80 Days Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts, 1601 Civic (at Locust), Walnut Creek, 925-943-7469.

BATS Improv Long-Form Festival Bayfront Theater, Fort Mason, Bldg. B (Marina & Buchanan), 474-8935.

BATS: Sunday Players Fort Mason, Bldg. B, Marina & Buchanan, 474-6776.

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

Beyond Therapy Shelton Theater, 533 Sutter (at Powell), 931-8385.

Big City Improv Shelton Theater, 533 Sutter (at Powell), 931-8385.

Cats Orpheum Theater, 1192 Market (at Eighth St.), 512-7770.

Drunken Monkey Climate Theater, 285 Ninth St. (at Folsom), 863-1076.

The Fifth Annual Bay One-Acts Festival Eureka Theatre, 215 Jackson (at Front), 788-7469.

GayProv Off-Market Studio, 965 Mission (at Fifth St.), 896-6477.

Gem of the Ocean Geary Theater, 415 Geary (at Mason), 749-2228.

Happiness The Marsh, 1062 Valencia (at 22nd St.), 826-5750.

Imagination Unleashed Blue Bear Performance Hall, Fort Mason, Bldg. D, Marina & Buchanan, 885-5678.

In Bed With Fairy Butch for Women, Transfolks, & Their Pals 12 Galaxies, 2565 Mission (at 22nd St.), 970-9777.

Kung Fu Evangelist Dark Room Theater, 2263 Mission (at 18th St.), 401-7987.

Los Big Names Unplugged The Marsh, 1062 Valencia (at 22nd St.), 826-5750.

Love, Chaos & Dinner Pier 29, Embarcadero (at Battery), 273-1620.

Love Letters Off-Market Theater, 965 Mission (at Fifth St.), 896-6477.

Loveplay Old Oakland Theatre, 461 Ninth St. (at Broadway), Oakland, 510-436-5085.

Luna Noh Space, 2840 Mariposa (at Florida), 621-7978.

Monday Night Improv Jam Off-Market Theater, 965 Mission (at Fifth St.), 368-9909.

Monday Night Marsh The Marsh, 1062 Valencia (at 22nd St.), 826-5750.

Morbidity and Mortality Magic Theatre, Fort Mason, Bldg. D, Marina & Buchanan, 441-8822.

Nero (Another Golden Rome) Magic Theatre, Fort Mason, Bldg. D, Marina & Buchanan, 441-8822.

The Night of the Iguana Actors Theatre San Francisco, 533 Sutter (at Powell), 296-9179.

On the Bum Zeum Theater, 221 Fourth St. (at Howard), 820-3320.

Our Lady of 121st Street SF Playhouse, 536 Sutter (at Powell), 677-9596.

Perfect Ganesh Phoenix Theatre, 414 Mason (at Geary), Suite 601, 989-0023.

Pressing Beyond in Between The Thick House, 1695 18th St. (at Arkansas), 587-4465.

Purvis Intersection for the Arts, 446 Valencia (at 15th St.), 626-2787.

Strange Travel Suggestions Marsh Berkeley, 2118 Allston (at Shattuck), Berkeley, 826-5750.

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

Uncle Buzzy's Hometown Theater Show Exit Theatre, 156 Eddy (at Taylor), 673-3847.

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