Our critics weigh in on local theater

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.

Miss-Matches.com: Sex, Lies and Instant Messaging! "I'm barfing out the story — unabridged!" That's how actor/writer Leslie Beam explains it in her one-woman show Miss-Matches.com. This self-declared "queen of cyberland" takes us on a 66-minute journey through a small sampling of more than 300 badly matched Internet dates after the breakup of her 13-year marriage (he was obsessed with football and bong rips; she was consumed with computer-sex chat rooms). Beam gets props for hanging out her dirty laundry: Onstage she brandishes her favorite sex toys (including a 3-foot-long Black & Decker vibrator), shows us dungeon floggings, makes fun of gimp-armed lovers, complains about fat people, and confesses to multiple dates with a convict tattooed with the words "white pride." Any sympathy she generates sours when she lightheartedly reveals her prejudice, recounting her ghastly treatment of an innocent date solely because he was black. She doesn't delve into her discrimination or give it any particular reason or depth; she simply tries for a laugh. Later she turns down another black cybersuitor, responding that she hasn't yet "exhausted the entire pool of eligible white men." In trying to illuminate the human and humorous side of Internet dating, Beam delivers a one-dimensional portrayal of herself and caricatures of her dates, seeming intent on proving that the Web is filled with a disproportionate number of weirdos and psychos. Through April 29 at the Shelton Theater, 533 Sutter (between Mason and Powell), S.F. Tickets are $25; call 820-1454 or visit www.miss-matches.com. (Nathaniel Eaton) Reviewed March 1.

Nero (Another Golden Rome). Early in the second act, when it's clear everything in Rome is going to hell, actor Andrew Hurteau (as Nero's charismatic narrator, Boccaccio) states that "even the gravest devastation ... can be turned by the leader of the nation under siege to his own advantage ... into moments of theater he can star in." This world premiere, written by Steven Sater and developed at the Magic Theatre, presents a modernist take on the delicious and decadent source material of Nero, the Roman party-boy emperor who had an Oedipal relationship with his mom, slept with "humpbacked midgets," and famously played the fiddle as his empire burned — an intentional and frightening allegory about our current administration. This ambitious production — helmed by Beth F. Milles, scored with songs by Grammy-nominated Duncan Sheik, and staged on an impressive deconstructionist set by Melpomene Katakalos — briefly stumbles out of the gate in a first act clogged with too much stilted narration and strangely stylized acting, then settles into a solid and powerful night of theater as we witness the inner workings and betrayals of an empire in steep decline. Sater's script depicts Nero (Drew Hirshfield), who first appears in drag (well, he isthe nephew of the decadent Caligula), as the political puppet of his mother (Catherine Smitko) and his adviser Seneca (David Cramer); the play is a startling reminder of the devastation that can result if a government and its leader are allowed to go unchecked and be unaccountable. Through April 8 at the Magic Theatre, Fort Mason Center, Marina & Buchanan, S.F. Tickets are $20-40; call 441-8822 or visit www.magictheatre.org. (Nathaniel Eaton) Reviewed March 15.

A Perfect Ganesh. A graceful god, with rotund belly and bejeweled elephant headdress, dances onstage as Indian music carries subtle incense on the air. This plump god is Ganesh, "queller of obstacles," inviting us to follow two women to Bombay. With a clap of Ganesh's hands, we're at the airport, where we meet the finicky Margaret and the spontaneous Katharine, a pair of well-to-do old friends about to discover they hardly know each other. Their turbulent journey reveals that Katharine is recovering from a loss (aided by self-help tapes), and is hoping India will heal her pain; Margaret is escaping heartbreak of her own. As the pair experience the heat and crowds, meet fellow travelers, and marvel at the country's beauty — accompanied by the wise deity — they reveal themselves for the first time. Free Range Theatre Company presents a cast with dynamic chemistry. David Klatt endears as Ganesh, despite his cumbersome, albeit lovely, costume. Elizabeth Benedict, as Katharine, provides an energy that improves the sluggish pacing of this tender play. Poor staging does the production a disservice, particularly when Dana Kelly (as a character called Man) is stuck in the aisle maneuvering puppets, and again when he's limited to displaying only the partial profile of a detailed mask. Ganesh develops drama slowly and bypasses several comedic opportunities, which were sorely missed in this three-hour version. Through March 26 at the Phoenix Theatre, 414 Mason (at Geary), S.F. Tickets are $20; call 383-5472 or visit www.freerangetheatre.com. (Emily Forbes) Reviewed March 15.

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