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Our critics weigh in on local theater

It's a Wonderful Life: A Radio Play.Since premiering in 1996, Joe Landry's "live radio play" adaptation of the 1946 movie classic It's a Wonderful Life has become popular among theater companies around the country. But if Actors Theatre's enthusiastic though undercooked staging is anything to go by, the 1940s-style wireless take on Frank Capra's story about a despairing man whose life is saved by a guardian angel doesn't breathe new life into Capra's Life. In keeping with the cozy nostalgia associated with postwar radio broadcasts, this production features a couple of endearing conceits: We viewers are treated like members of a live studio audience. A stage manager holds up an "applause" banner every now and again, and the cast performs advertisements from the show's sponsors. Unfortunately, this Life isn't as wonderful as it could be, because the actors — eyes glued to their scripts — seem to forget that this is a stage play, too. Many of the performers have charismatic voices, and they certainly look the parts in their hairnets and suspenders. Yet the show lacks theatricality. It's entertaining watching Malinda Hackett as the stage manager grabbing at whistles, telephones, and wine bottles, sloshing her arms about in a bucket of water, and jumping up and down to open and close a door in an attempt to create the show's soundscape. But director Kenneth Vandenburg doesn't exploit the sonic potential as much as he could. The work remains as predictably tepid as a door-to-door rendition of "Silent Night." Through Dec. 23 at Actors Theatre, 855 Bush (between Mason and Taylor), S.F. Tickets are $10-30; call 345-1288 or visit www.actorstheatresf.org. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed Dec. 13.

Luminescence Dating. "Have you seen a 7-foot naked statue that seems to have disappeared off the face of the Earth?" This is the central mystery driving ACT Artistic Director Carey Perloff's new romantic thriller about three archaeologists linked in an obsessive search for the Praxiteles Aphrodite, a tall marble nude that aroused fixations in 5th-century B.C. before vanishing without a trace. When a disturbing burial ground of murdered children is excavated in Cyprus, the mystery of the missing statue deepens. Much of the play's dynamic tension comes from the characters' opposing professional ideologies. Driven by instinct, emotion, and (at times unethical) passion, Angela (René Augesen) clashes with former lover Nigel (Stephen Barker Turner), a military historian who has no patience for subjectivity in his research. Victor (an excellent Gregory Wallace) provides needed humor as the queer theorist caught between the other two. Perloff is too zealous in trying to link the past with the present, and her writing is sometimes unconvincing — for example, when the cranky old cleaning lady (Ching Valdes-Aran) starts to creep around as if channeling Aphrodite and growl out lover's advice, and when Nigel's personal life starts to mimic the final revelation of their archaeological dig. Beyond these glitches, however, Dating works wonderfully as a thrilling and intellectually stimulating Indiana JonesÐstyle puzzle. Through Dec. 23 at the Magic Theatre, Fort Mason Center, Bldg. D, Marina & Buchanan, S.F. Tickets are $31-40; call 441-8822 or visit www.magictheatre.org. (Nathaniel Eaton) Reviewed Dec. 13.

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.

The 14th Annual Evening of Kung Pao Kosher Comedy
New Asia Restaurant, 772 Pacific (Grant), 522-3737.
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.
The Forest War
The Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby (at MLK Jr.), Berkeley, 510-841-6500.
Forever Tango
Post Street Theatre, 450 Post (at Mason), 321-2900.
GayProv Off-Market Studio, 965 Mission (at Fifth St.), 896-6477.
It Could Have Been A Wonderful Life
Phoenix Theatre, 414 Mason (at Geary), Suite 601, 989-0023.
Jersey Boys
Curran Theatre, 445 Geary (between Taylor and Mason), 551-2000.
Jesus Christ Superstar
Orpheum Theater, 1192 Market (at Eighth St.), 512-7770.
A Little Cole in Your Stocking
Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison (at Shattuck), Berkeley, 510-843-4822.
Love, Chaos & Dinner
Pier 29, Embarcadero (at Battery), 273-1620.
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.
Oy Vey in a Manger
Herbst Theatre, 401 Van Ness (at Grove), 392-4400.
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.
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.
A Very Brechty X-Mas
Off-Market Theater, 965 Mission (at Fifth St.), 896-6477.

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