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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.

"Moving Right Along."The name Elaine May — author and director of On the Way and George Is Dead, two of the three one-act plays that make up this production — is well known. Conversely, the name Jan Mirochek — the writer of Killing Trotsky, the first of the night's offerings — is shrouded in mystery. In our hoax-happy, post-JT LeRoy and lonelygirl15 age, it's tempting to think that the same hand (i.e., May's) penned all three plays. For although the one-acts in the program seem to have little in common — Killing Trotsky tells the story of a high-strung playwright's desperate desire to see his latest work produced; the second, On the Way, centers around a conversation between a WASPy, middle-aged bon viveur and his Dominican chauffeur; in the third, George Is Dead, a newly widowed socialite pays a remote acquaintance an unexpected visit — they complement and echo each other in startling ways. Despite some imperfections (such as Jeannie Berlin's static direction of On the Way), there's something bewitching about how May's plays meld with the mysterious Mirochek's. Each one-act pulses with the same acerbic humor; wicked comedy and growling tragedy collide and balance each other. If the same person didn't write all these plays, then at the very least "Moving Right Along" feels like a collaboration between two symbiotic minds. Through Nov. 19 at the Magic Theatre, Fort Mason Center, Marina & Buchanan, S.F. Tickets are $20-52; call 441-8822 or visit www.magictheatre.org. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed Nov. 8.

Richard III. When Richard died in battle in 1485, his death ended a series of English civil wars that had gone on for 30 years — the Wars of the Roses — which may explain why this production has a large black-and-white picture of a hand holding a rose at center stage. It's a striking image full of violence and romance that's ideal for Shakespeare's great meditation on the seductive nature of evil. The rose is just part of Kim A. Tolman's masterful set, which places us in an abstract future and defines the author's themes in bold modern strokes. Composer Igor Nemirovsky wraps the proceedings in compelling, icy tones that add to the ambience and help move the play forward. The action has an authoritative sense of tone and urgency that point to an uncommonly talented director, Jon Tracy. The cast is unified in its competence with the verse, and there are numerous standout performances: Skyler Cooper brings an incredible physical presence to the stage, Anthony Nemirovsky as Buckingham is nimble with the language and subtle with his characterization, and GreyWolf sinks his teeth into Richard III as if he'd been waiting his whole life to play such an enigmatic, charismatic villain. Through Nov. 18 at Project Artaud Theatre, 450 Florida (at 18th St.), S.F. Tickets are $2.50-37.50; call 392-4400 or visit www.lupineevent.net. (Frank Wortham) Reviewed Nov. 8.

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 visitwww.shoppingthemusical.com. (Frank Wortham) Reviewed June 14.

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