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 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. Through Sept. 3 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.

Baum for Peace. It's obvious that Terry Baum is an engaged citizen and a fierce advocate for her community. What's not so obvious is why her 2004 run for Congress as a Green Party candidate was worth turning into a musical performance piece. Feeling frustrated with the "dumb damn Dems" after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, Baum found solace in Ralph Nader's party of choice, and valiantly attempted to give voice to those she considered underrepresented. Her journey from outraged citizen to inspired politician at times has real resonance — on the night I attended you could practically see the audience searching for a voting booth when Baum pleaded for a move toward proactive political action. However, this well-meaning comedic show too often falls prey to an over-reliance on Baum's abundant charisma and on an overly indulgent crowd. The aging baby boomers and easygoing, like-minded lefties smiled through the sloppy musical accompaniment, trite lyrics, and story that's pinned to an undramatic plot point involving voting-card etiquette. The audience members seemed to be applauding having their own views reflected back at them. Angels in America, Death of a Salesman, A Raisin in the Sun— truly great political plays such as these strive to make decisive, effective theatrical statements in the face of opposition. They never rest on the presumption of a friendly crowd with low standards. Baum for Peace is a call for political commitment that needs to commit itself to the theater. Through Aug. 26 at the Marsh Theater, 1062 Valencia (at 21st St.), S.F. Tickets are $15-22, call 826-5750 or visit www.themarsh.org. (Frank Wortham) Reviewed July 12.

Godfellas. The Rev. De Love, the sinful soul preacher in San Francisco Mime Troupe's new religious doctrineÐthemed show, is heaven-bent on spreading the word of God to every corner of the land. Behind the scenes at a "Rock the Lord Crusade" concert "to reclaim California for God and honor 9/11," Love (Michael Gene Sullivan) and his dastardly gang of spiritual desperados concoct a plan to rid the country once and for all of the tiresome separation of church and state. The religious right might be an easy target for the Mime Troupe, but far from blandly reflecting the atheistic, left-wing mindset of its core audience, the team behind Godfellas manages, for a change, to make us think. The wisecracking text and pithy musical numbers (co-written by Sullivan with Jon Brooks, Eugenie Chan, and Christian Cagigal, who also acts) crackle with irreverence in the hands of the multifaceted ensemble cast. Meanwhile, moments of cartoonlike surrealism, such as the sudden appearance through a trapdoor of 18th-century intellectual Thomas Paine and his contemporary, Thomas Jefferson, adds a wacky dimension to the religious nuts' maniacal proselytizing. Showing spiritually skeptical liberals to be as misguided as religious zealots, the troupe delivers its message about dogma without being dogmatic. Through Oct. 1 at various locations throughout Northern California. Tickets are free; call 285-1717 or visit www.sfmt.org. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed July 19.

Hunter Gatherers. When Richard and Pam, a middle-class, urban married couple in their mid-30s, prepare for a dinner party with their friends Tom and Wendy by slaughtering livestock on the living room carpet, human civilization looks dangerously like it's about to have the rug pulled from under its feet. What begins as an elegant soiree — featuring a menu of stuffed mushrooms, fine wines, and the freshest lamb ever tasted within the corrugated steel walls of a split-level San Francisco loft apartment — gradually erodes into a primeval bone-dance of homoerotic wrestling, violent passions, and animal sacrifice. The rules that govern modern-day living soon cease to apply, as playwright Peter Sinn Nachtrieb's Gen-Xers are forced to turn to their most basic instincts in order to survive. Much of the animal force and flinty wit of Killing My Lobster's world-premiere production stems from watching actors Melanie Case, John Kovacevich, Alexis Lezin, and Jon Wolanske, as Nachtrieb's hapless city-dwellers, negotiate the tension between the yo-yoing civilized and primitive impulses of their characters. As sophisticated in its worldview as it is barbaric in its energy, Nachtrieb's riotous comedy shows that the distance between 21st-century city slickers and Paleolithic cave-dwellers might not be so great after all. Through Sept. 3 at Thick House, 1695 18th St. (between Arkansas and De Haro), S.F. Tickets are $20-25; call 558-7721 or visit www.killingmylobster.com. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed July 5.

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