Our critics weigh in on local theater

4 Adverbs. In Word for Word's production of four chapters from Daniel Handler's overwrought forthcoming "novel" about the complexities of modern relationships, actors portray wine bottles, a live volcano, cockroaches, doughnuts, and magpies, among other things. The stories follow such misfit characters as a champagne-swigging British expat trying to bridge the cultural divide in San Francisco, the ghost of a man recently murdered in Golden Gate Park, and a student stuck in a car with a mad college dropout on the road to "South San Francisco the Industrial City." Director Sheila Balter's equally self-conscious, yet highly inventive, staging works in many respects: The physically expressive ensemble of eight actors hits the goofy spirit of Handler's situations with precision. But despite the imaginative mise-en-scène and the brilliant ensemble work, self-consciousness soon takes over. The metatheatrics of the text and the staging remind us that we're watching a literary work onstage; we can never sit back and simply enjoy the story. Instead of helping us gain insight into Handler's world of misplaced lovers, the excess staginess puts us off: In "Wrongly," for example, when two actors pretend to be earrings, in the shape of Shakespeare's head, dangling from a character's ears, it's not merely cute, but so overwrought it's distracting. Through March 19 at the Project Artaud Theater, 450 Florida (between 17th and Mariposa streets), S.F. Tickets are $25-32; call 437-6775 or visit www.zspace.org. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed March 8.

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 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.

Hamlet. Director Melissa Hillman's decision to stage the world's most famous play in a pizzeria basement is nothing if not bold. Her actors perform with passion, she knows how to make a virtue out of the cramped surroundings, and her transitions between scenes are consistently slick. Best of all, she's blessed with a remarkable leading man: Patrick Alparone is a young actor of tantalizing range and promise. From the moment he appears in the space, silent and aquiline as a Trappist monk in his black hoodie, one senses the weight this Hamlet bears on his shoulders as well as his mocking intelligence. But even Alparone could use a little more directorial focus. Impact Theatre's production, though audacious, is hampered by the lack of a coherent vision. Hillman's interest in contemporizing the political aspects of the play -- with guns, indie rock, and night watchmen reimagined as bodyguards -- doesn't quite coalesce with her fascination for Hamlet's metatheatrical undercurrent. Revealingly, the scenes in which Hillman appears onstage as Hamlet's mother are the weakest. If only she would stick to directing. Or find another director, if she must act. Through March 18 at La Val's Subterranean Theatre, 1834 Euclid (at Hearst), Berkeley. Tickets are $10-15; call (510) 464-4468 or visit www.impacttheatre.com. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed March 1.

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.

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