Our critics weigh in on local theater

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. The moldering schoolhouse tradition of spelling bees has inspired a cultural deluge of late, from Myla Goldberg's 2001 novel Bee Season to the forthcoming feature film Akeelah and the Bee. That the bee has buzzed its way onto the Broadway stage is further proof of the craze. William Finn and Rachel Sheinkin's musical comedy about a group of teenage misfits pitting their linguistic wits against each other won two Tonys and broke several box office records during its Broadway run. Tandem productions are playing in San Francisco and Chicago, with a touring show scheduled for the fall. Within the first 15 minutes of Putnam County's competition — set in a school gym complete with ropes, a basketball hoop, and stadium-style seating — we pretty much know everything we need to know about the contestants: They're freaks. Spelling Bee does have its faults. Most of the songs are about as memorable as the spelling (and meaning) of "macrencephalous"; attempts to inject a whiff of topicality — like a reference to Dick Cheney's shooting incident — feel forced; and many of the laughs come cheap. Yet in riotously sending up the spelling bee phenomenon in a variety of ways (including inviting four audience members onstage to be contestants at every performance), Spelling Bee makes an important point: Despite the high stakes, it's just a game. In an open-ended run at the Post Street Theatre, 450 Post (at Powell), S.F. Tickets are $40-66; call 771-6900 or visit www.spellingbeethemusical.com. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed March 29.

Culture Clash's Zorro in Hell. The audacious Chicano theater troupe Culture Clash takes a peek behind the mask of California's most famous man in black in a production packed with contemporary cultural references, from Arnold Schwarzenegger, the San Francisco Mime Troupe, and Dick Cheney to downloadable ringtones, the Nike Swoosh, and Tupac Shakur. Bombarding the Zorro myth — and the audience — with a volley of contemporary kitsch isn't about generating cheap laughs, though smart comedy there is aplenty. Richard Montoya, Ric Salinas, and Herbert Sigüenza are such versatile performers and saber-witted writers that they put these often sloppily used allusions to work. Instead of cracking weak jokes about pop stars and politicians, the ensemble (true to its name) forces particles of history, myth, and culture to clash against one another — with profound results. The jamming of pop culture against a legendary past make us see that the daring deeds of fiction couldn't be further from our own reality. By the end of this story, which concerns a cynical Los Angeles-based writer's attempt to pen a book about Zorro, we're left wondering how the word "fandango" ever meant an animated Spanish-American dance in triple time, when it's obviously the name of an online movie ticket service. Through April 16 at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2025 Addison (at Shattuck), Berkeley. Tickets are $10-59; call (510) 647 2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed April 5.

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 and 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.

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