Kiss of the Spider Woman. Manuel Puig's sensual tale of love and political upheaval follows Molina, a homosexual window dresser, stuck in a Latin American jail with Valentin, a stoic, committed activist. Molina transcends his bleak surroundings by recalling his favorite romantic movies in great detail, while Valentin clings to his waning convictions and chides his flamboyant cellmate by stating, "Escaping from reality like you do is like a vice." It's a treat to watch this odd couple's philosophical and political discussions slowly unravel into something resembling intimacy. The actors handle Allan Baker's excellent translation's rich poetic dialogue with subtle skill, and the director sustains a compelling, palpable tension throughout the production. Bruce Walters and Ted Crimy's design work transforms the NCTC's small space into a convincingly gritty prison and a platform for Molina's flights of fancy. The real threat in Kiss of the Spider Woman doesn't come from the politicians, the military, or the police, but from the terrifying, naked need of loneliness and the alternate dilemma of revealing one's faults and failings to a lover. Puig said in a 1979 interview, "Our only compromise is with the individual, personal truth." This is a sure-handed production of a play that refuses to compromise. Through Sept. 17 at the New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness (at Oak), S.F. Tickets are $22-34; call 861-8972 or visit www.nctcsf.org. (Frank Wortham) Reviewed Sept. 6.
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 Sept. 30 at the Shelton Theater, 533 Sutter (at Powell), S.F. Tickets are $15-20; call 820-1454 or visit www.miss-matches.com. (Nathaniel Eaton) Reviewed March 1.
Salome. Featuring a scene in which a woman kisses a severed head, a soothsayer ranting oaths from the bottom of septic tank, and bad poetry, Oscar Wilde's 1892 play has all the makings of a comedy. Yet it isn't meant to be all that funny at least not in the typical Wildean sense of the word. Set in the court of King Herod, the work retells the famous Biblical story about the martyrdom of John the Baptist at the hands of the princess Salome, who demands the prophet's head on a silver platter in exchange for performing a seductive dance for the king. The problem with performing Salome today is that it's hard to know whether to play it straight or do it Dame EdnaÐstyle. Director Mark Jackson attempts both. At the center of the production is Ron Campbell's show-stealing performance as Herod. Swaggering tipsily about in a crimson velvet smoking jacket, the actor seems to be channeling another famous Herod Josh Mostel's in the 1973 movie version of Jesus Christ Superstar. Yet as big as Campbell's performance is, it's also subtle: A marked vacuousness behind his bravura and his ecstatic statements of happiness clues us in to the character's weak, desperate nature. Though full of ingenious ideas and fine physical performances, Jackson's Salome leaves us wondering if the director really knows what he thinks of Wilde's weird play. Through Oct. 1 at Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison (at Shattuck), Berkeley. Tickets are $38; call (510) 843-4822 or visit www.auroratheatre.org. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed Sept. 6.
Shopping! The Musical. Some theater types want to be Hamlet; others want to be Liza Minnelli. The smiling, hardworking performers in this new musical revue definitely fall into the latter category. Lyricist-composer Morris Bobrow uses his infectious, irreverent humor to great effect as he pays homage to the highs and lows of our compellingly crass commercial culture. He uses the small, cramped theater in a straightforward manner four center-stage stools and an amusing backdrop provide the set. The accomplished accompanist Ben Keim keeps things lively on one side of the stage behind an upright piano. The actors lead us through songs that bring to mind Jerry Seinfeld's sharp observations on mundane modern life: "Shopping in Style" extols the virtues of Costco, and "Serious Shopping" imagines a man trying to buy lettuce from a riotously over-the-top grocery cult. The musical runs just over an hour, yet it still has a few rough spots. The mid-show sketch "Checking Out" gives us a limp comedic premise that we've seen before on sub-par sitcoms, and the piece "5 & 10" is a mix of awkward nostalgia and pitch problems. Nevertheless, this is a clever collection of tunes performed with an unabashedly cheesy enthusiasm that would make Liza proud. In an open-ended run at the Shelton Theater, 533 Sutter (between Powell and Mason), S.F. Tickets are $25-29; call (800) 838-3006 or visit www.shoppingthemusical.com. (Frank Wortham) Reviewed June 14.
The Trip to Bountiful. It's been 30 years since veteran Method actorÐturnedÐacclaimed acting coach Jean Shelton has performed on stage. So Horton Foote's 1953 drama, telling the story of an elderly woman's homecoming, in many ways heralds a homecoming for the actor. Shelton demonstrates a prodigious range as Carrie Watts, a determined old lady who flees the confines of a rundown Houston apartment for Bountiful, the tiny rural town in which she grew up. Perched on a dilapidated couch in her nightgown in the opening scene, she makes for a seemingly tranquil insomniac. But there's pain behind the character's banter with her overprotective son, Ludie (Christian Phillips), about not being able to sleep because of the full moon. Shelton's performance is also very physical: Whether collapsing on the floor or skipping girlishly offstage, Shelton reveals a vivacity that belies her age, 78. Despite the actor's connection with her role, and sensitive performances from the supporting cast, Foote's text feels as musty as a geriatric's undergarments. Although the themes of loss and familial tension are as prescient as ever, the writing features little resonant language and few memorable characters to transcend its era which has the unfortunate effect of turning Shelton's comeback into a throwback. Through Sept. 16 at Actors Theatre, 855 Bush (between Mason and Taylor), S.F. Tickets are $20-30; call 345-1288 or visit www.actorstheatresf.org. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed Aug. 9.
The Typographer's Dream. At the beginning of Encore Theatre Company's production of Adam Bock's play, we are introduced to three characters: a typographer, a geographer, and a stenographer, who proceed, with varying degrees of stiffness and eloquence, to enthuse about their jobs. Reportedly inspired in part by the 2 1/2 years Bock spent working at a graphic and Web design firm, this beautiful and strange comedy riffs on the relationship between people and their careers. Director Anne Kauffman and actors Aimée Guillot, Jamie Jones, and Michael Shipley gleefully demonstrate how the three characters match their chosen jobs, occasionally making them resemble through the unselfconscious eagerness with which they talk about their work the wacky types that people the films of Christopher Guest. A whole branch of ham-psychology exists around the business of matching "personality types" with appropriate careers. But Bock does more than demonstrate the influence of personality upon career choice; he also shows the reverse: how our career choices influence us. Through Sept. 16 at the Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby (at MLK), Berkeley. Tickets are $20-30; call (510) 841-6500 or visit www.shotgunplayers.org. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed Feb. 16, 2005.
Absolutely San Francisco Phoenix Theatre, 414 Mason (at Geary), Suite 601, 989-0023.
Bad Gays Jon Sims Center for the Arts, 1519 Mission (at 11th St.), 554-0402.
Lulu Victoria Theatre, 2961 16th St. (at Capp), 863-7576.
Pinteresque: The Lover Eureka Theatre, 215 Jackson (at Front), 788-7469.
Soladera The Next Stage, 1620 Gough (at Bush), Trinity Episcopal Church, 333-6389.
Suitcase Intersection for the Arts, 446 Valencia (at 15th St.), 626-3311.