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Our critics weigh in on local theater

Gibraltar.Octavio Solis' fandango in the minor key about the inextricable, impenetrable danza between love and death is couched in the language of "duende" — a notoriously untranslatable Spanish word roughly meaning both a fairylike, mythical figure and a concept in art to do with soulfulness and emotional authenticity. Set in contemporary San Francisco, Gibraltar concerns Amy (Dena Martinez), a young, recently widowed artist of Mexican descent, whose mourning for her dead husband takes an unexpected turn when she encounters a mysterious hobo named Palo (Johnny Moreno) while perusing the detergent aisle at the Marina District Safeway. Palo (who may or may not be a figment of Amy's grief-fogged imagination) has traveled up the coast from Mexico to the Bay Area in search of his lover, Lila, a woman who left him after he beat her in a jealous rage. The play mentions "duende" no fewer than nine times. There are ghosts. Palo even speaks with an Antonio Banderas brogue. But despite Solis' mastery of a complex dramatic structure and earnest performances from all the cast, this rocky play shows that it takes more than pseudo-gaucho diction and a bunch of phantoms having onstage sex to grasp duende at the root. Through Dec. 17 at the Thick House, 1695 18th St. (between Arkansas and Carolina), S.F. Tickets are $15-25; call 401-8081 or visit www.thickhouse.org. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed Dec. 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.

Reckless. It's Christmas Eve, and Rachel, a loving mother and wife, has just discovered that her husband has taken a contract out on her life. This realization causes her to step out the window — literally — and into a new life, where the only permanence is impermanence and "home" is wherever she can find it. Reckless examines the nature of identity: What happens to someone whose life is defined by family when she loses that family? Playwright Craig Lucas examines how we construct our sense of self in a series of rapid-fire, increasingly surreal scenes with the soft, psychoanalytic feel of Marc Chagall paintings. Bill English's pastel set and Jon Retsky's dreamlike lighting help illuminate Lucas' themes and tell the story of Rachel's yearlong journey. The cast is strong and clearly believes in the script. Mark LaRiviere, playing both Rachel's husband and her son, brings a convincing, angsty charisma to the stage. Rod Gnapp reveals impressive technical excellence and adds subtle emotional layering to Lloyd, a stranger who becomes an adopted father figure. Susi Damilano, as Rachel, is both attractive and compelling, finding truth in all the shades of her character and reminding us that wisdom often lies just on the other side of hardship. Reckless is a holiday treat. Through Dec. 30 at S.F. Playhouse, 533 Sutter (at Powell), S.F. Tickets are $18-60; call 677-9596 or visit www.sfplayhouse.org. (Frank Wortham) Reviewed Nov. 22.

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.

super: anti: reluctant. Local performance company Mugwumpin's press release proudly declares that it is interested in questioning the primacy of text and narrative in theater. With super: anti: reluctant it does that and more by chucking out any semblance of cohesive story line. The theme of this "ensemble-created assemblage" is "heroic archetypes and their sway over culture." I quote liberally from the press release because in creating this show involving (again to quote) "original and found music, text, gesture, and sheer freakishness" the results are befuddling and open to myriad interpretations. Five actors in black-and-gray business suits move frenetically and with the confusing tendency to speak over each other's dialogue. They mime putting on superhero outfits and play out a succession of unrelated scenes: homesteaders wagoning West to look for a plot of land, a woman writing a Philip Marlowe novel, and frustrated customers in line at a Starbucks. It's like an abstract expressionist painting, with a lo-fi set made of butcher paper and packing tape and sound cues coming from a '70s cassette deck. The meaning and emotional impact are left to the individual viewer. The opinion of one audience member I overheard after the show was "brilliant," while we left feeling bewildered. Through Dec. 15 at Exit Stage Left, 156 Eddy (between Taylor and Mason), S.F. Tickets are $10-20; call 673-3847 or visit www.sffringe.org. (Nathaniel Eaton) Reviewed Dec. 6.

All Wear Bowlers Berkeley Repertory's Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison (at Shattuck), Berkeley, 510-647-2949.
BATS: Sunday Players Fort Mason, Bldg. B, Marina & Buchanan, 474-6776.
Beach Blanket Babylon Club Fugazi, 678 Green (at Powell), 421-4222.
Beyond Therapy Shelton Theater, 533 Sutter (at Powell), 433-1226.
Big City Improv Shelton Theater, 533 Sutter (at Powell), 433-1226.
Black Nativity Lorraine Hansberry Theatre, 620 Sutter (at Mason), 474-8800.
Christmas Ballet Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theater, 700 Howard (at Third St.), 978-2787.
A Christmas Carol American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary (at Mason), 749-2228.
Cinderella
Zeum Theater, 221 Fourth St. (at Howard), 820-3320.
Convenience
New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness (at Market), 861-8972.
Death of a Salesman
Actors Theatre San Francisco, 533 Sutter (at Powell), 296-9179.
The Forest War
The Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby (at MLK Jr.), Berkeley, 510-841-6500.
GayProv
Off-Market Studio, 965 Mission (at Fifth St.), 896-6477.
Improv Revolution
Off-Market Theater, 965 Mission (at Fifth St.), 896-6477.
It Could Have Been A Wonderful Life
Phoenix Theatre, 414 Mason (at Geary), Suite 601, 989-0023.
It's a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play
Actors Theatre San Francisco, 533 Sutter (at Powell), 296-9179.
Jersey Boys
Curran Theatre, 445 Geary (between Taylor and Mason), 551-2000.
Jesus Christ Superstar
Orpheum Theater, 1192 Market (at Eighth St.), 512-7770.
Love, Chaos & Dinner
Pier 29, Embarcadero (at Battery), 273-1620.
Luminescence Dating
Magic Theatre, Fort Mason, Bldg. D, Marina & Buchanan, 441-8822.
Magic Holiday
The Marsh, 1062 Valencia (at 22nd St.), 826-5750.
Monday Night Improv Jam
Off-Market Theater, 965 Mission (at Fifth St.), 368-9909.
Monday Night Make Em Ups San Francisco Comedy College, 414 Mason, #705 (at Geary), 921-2051.
Monday Night Marsh
The Marsh, 1062 Valencia (at 22nd St.), 826-5750.
Murder Mystery Dinner
The Archbishop's Mansion, 1000 Fulton (at Steiner), 563-7872.
The Nutcracker
War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness (at Grove), 864-3330.
Queenie and the Chorus Girl
Off-Market Theater, 965 Mission (at Fifth St.), 896-6477.
Queer Carol
New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness (at Market), 861-8972.
Rat Pack Is Back
Marines Memorial Theater, 609 Sutter (at Mason), 771-6900.
The Santaland Diaries
Off-Market Theater, 965 Mission (at Fifth St.), 896-6477.
Strip World
Exit Theatre, 156 Eddy (at Taylor), 673-3847.
Traces
Palace of Fine Arts, 3301 Lyon (at Bay), 567-6642.
Trimming the Holidays: The Second Annual Shorts Project
Shelton Theater, 533 Sutter (at Powell), 433-1226.
Twelve Days of Cochina
Theatre Rhinoceros, 2926 16th St. (at South Van Ness), 861-5079.
A Very Brechty X-Mas
Off-Market Theater, 965 Mission (at Fifth St.), 896-6477.

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