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Our critics weigh in on local theater

Big Love. If Aeschylus and Karen O. had a baby, it might look something like FoolsFury's latest production. Charles Mee's fascinating text collage steals liberally from the old Greek's play The Suppliant Women, The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon (from Japan in the year 990), Andy Warhol shooter Valerie Solanas' writings, and a book on the psychic makeup of Nazi soldiers — forming a compelling exploration of love, power, dominance, and submission. The talented director Laley Lippard and the energetic cast bring a similar cut-and-paste aesthetic to the staging; classical and modern dance gestures mix with new-wave choreography from the '80s and punk rock abandon from the '70s. The actors demonstrate an intense commitment to illuminating the text: They literally throw themselves into something like a trance in an effort to fill Mee's sensual poetry. Big Love sacrifices character and narrative cohesion for language and movement-based images, and as a result there are awkward moments when a performer's excessive earnestness and avant-garde flailing betray this young group's lofty ambitions. That said, I can't think of another local company that's aiming so high. Through Oct. 28 at Traveling Jewish Theater, 470 Florida (at 18th St.), S.F. Tickets are $15-30; call 626-0453, ext. 108, or visit www.foolsfury.org. (Frank Wortham) Reviewed Oct. 4.

Colorado.In Peter Sinn Nachtrieb's murky comedy, the humble pecan, rhubarb, and chocolate cream pie comes to represent all that is disingenuous and misguided in American culture. When "Miss Late Teen Colorado" champion Tracey Ackhart mysteriously disappears a day shy of the national pageant finals in Virginia Beach, the local community rallies around her family in support — through an emotional outpouring of baked goods. Within 24 hours, the Ackharts' home has become so deluged with pies that the family could start a patisserie. As Tracey, Adrienne Papp delivers each cloying, overripe metaphor in her character's beauty (or rather, "bee-oody") pageant competition speeches with the perfect mix of misguided earnestness and self-indulgent, plastic smugness. Yet despite the power of the pie image and the enthusiastic performances from Impact Theatre's cast of four, Nachtrieb's play remains largely under-baked, with its stereotypical characters, sitcomlike scenarios, and moments of clunky exposition. Colorado contains many of the ingredients of a great play, but they don't blend together into a satisfying whole. Through Oct. 28 at Impact Theatre, La Val's Subterranean, 1834 Euclid (at Hearst), Berkeley. Tickets are $10-15; call (510) 464-4468 or visit www.impacttheatre.com. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed Oct. 11.

God of Hell. Sam Shepard's overtly political new play has the same strengths and weaknesses as a punk song. It's an unrefined, passionate indictment of the current neo-conservative administration and a theatrical rallying cry that wants expose pseudo-patriotic hypocrites. Yet its rushed sense of purpose blunts the poetic and dramatic subtlety that make Shepard's mid-period work — Buried Child, Curse of the Starving Class — so essential. God of Hellopens in a simple Midwestern farmhouse with a couple more interested in their plants and heifers than politics. The outside world comes rushing in when a fugitive houseguest draws the attention of a man who clearly represents everything Shepard finds reprehensible about America — a suit with sadistic tendencies who hides his fascistic jingoism behind a flag. The director and actors do their best with what feels like a promising first draft. The script and the production can't quite commit to naturalism, so the absurdist flights feel unearned and ungrounded (and vice versa). The visceral punch this production is looking for is just around the corner — but it never delivers. Shepard has found an authentic voice once again for his righteous political anger, yet it remains to be seen if he'll find the discipline and craft to galvanize his instincts. Through Oct. 22 at the Magic Theatre, Fort Mason Center, Marina & Buchanan, Building D, Third Floor, S.F. Tickets are $26-45; call 441-8822 or visit www.magictheatre.org. (Frank Wortham) Reviewed Oct. 11.

Love, Janis. What starts as a black-and-white photo montage of a young Midwestern girl in frilly baby-doll dresses soon explodes into a rainbow of psychedelic color and debaucherously good rock 'n' roll. Following the young and naive Joplin as she thumbs a ride from Port Arthur, Tex., to late-'60s San Francisco, Love, Janisdocuments four packed years through her tenure fronting Big Brother and the Holding Company and on into her solo career — and then comes to a screeching halt with her untimely heroin overdose in 1970. The narrative is pieced together from letters Joplin wrote home and bits of interviews, but though every word spoken on stage comes from Haight Ashbury's first pinup herself, these interludes are the weak link in an otherwise powerhouse show. Two actors play Joplin nightly, and the electric and deliriously pained voice of the singing stage persona (Mary Bridget Davies) contrasts shockingly with the giddy and practically ditzy Southern girl personality (Elizabeth Rainer), who sends mundane letters describing car trouble, TV-watching, and fluffy puppies. Thankfully, Love, Janis is primarily a pulse-pounding rock concert, with surging electric guitars, tie-dyed light show, and wafting incense — and Davies howling pure, unadulterated dirty blues that make the slickly recorded and sequenced music of today seem sadly soulless. Through Nov. 19 at Marines Memorial Theater, 609 Sutter (between Mason and Powell), S.F. Tickets are $35-67; call 771-6900 or visit www.marinesmemorialtheatre.com. (Nathaniel Eaton) Reviewed Sept. 20.

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