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Our critics weigh in on local theater

Emperor Norton the Musical.San Francisco has long been a haven for eccentrics. But even the most colorful of today's local characters, such as Pink Man and the Brown Twins pale in comparison to 19th-century San Francisco luminary Joshua A. Norton — failed businessman, friend to stray dogs, and self-proclaimed Emperor of the United States. Which is why lyricist Kim Ohanneson, composer Marty Axelrod, and director David Stein's collective impulse to create a musical out of Norton's made-for-the-stage narrative (and transfer it from the Dark Room Theater where the work received its premiere to the more tourist-friendly Shelton Theater,) is supremely sane. If only the execution of the production were less so. Ohanneson's book rambunctiously captures the frontier, anything-goes spirit of postÐGold Rush San Francisco and Axelrod's evocative score combines a honky-tonk, piano-bar feel and snippets of traditional tunes such as "Turkey in the Straw" with arias alternately indebted to Gilbert & Sullivan and Lloyd-Webber & Rice. Yet despite Ohanneson and Axelrod's fine sense of the surreal and some bracingly bonkers performances (especially from the shaggy-looking Peter Doty and Steffanos X as Norton's dogs), Emperor Norton remains a curiously staid affair. The production seems intent on downplaying the madness. The performers mostly move about the stage and sing their lines as if carrying out instructions rather than being fully present in their roles. Stein's staging ultimately makes Norton more of an Everyman than an Emperor. Through April 1 at the Shelton Theater, 533 Sutter (between Mason and Powell), S.F. Tickets are $30; call 433-1226 or visit www.emperornortonthemusical.com. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed Feb. 7.

Ethiopian Tattoo Shop.Based on an '80s spiritual self-help book by a Catholic priest named Edward Hays, this earnest adaptation is essentially an evening of eight parables about the spiritual search for happiness and contentment. An American traveler stumbles into a mystical tattoo shop in North Africa and, instead of receiving a traditional ink marking, he is treated to an evening of "inspirational" storytelling from the Ethiopian shop owner. Four additional actors fill out these tales that range from the trite and obvious (a fig tree dreaming it could be a pear tree and the gardener reminding it to look down at its roots to remember who it truly was) to the intriguing, yet still obvious (a South American artist subverts a tyrannical government with his brush and not a gun). Despite occasional cornball acting choices and goofy accents, the Prometheus Theater Company does hit enjoyable and powerful tones, especially in the end with a soulful and spirited meeting with God (the charismatic and golden-voiced Jonathan Smothers). Even with the well-meaning cast, it's hard to transcend source material with lines such as, "[This fig tree] bears only the fruits of failure" and "Manure is an essential companion to those who want to become fully mature." Through Feb. 18 at the Teatro de la Esperanza, 2940 16th St. (between Capp and S. Van Ness), S.F. Tickets are $10-15; call 800-838-3006. (Nathaniel Eaton) Reviewed Feb. 7.

The Pillowman.Unraveling in some unspecified, vaguely mittel-European "totalitarian state," Anglo-Irish dramatist Martin McDonagh's 2003 play follows what happens when a couple of police officers interrogate a writer named Katurian Katurian about the relationship between his ghoulish fairy tales (in which, almost invariably, "some poor little kid gets fucked up") and the gruesome murders of three local children. As told through director Les Waters' pulse-pumping production for Berkeley Rep, McDonagh's vicious little yarn plays itself out like a bedtime story of the most frightening and funny kind. The faded splendor of Antje Ellermann's police interrogation room set, Russell H. Champa's sickly, lurching lights and Obadiah Eaves' eerie soundscape, help to make this Pillowman pungent. As Katurian and his older brother, Michal, respectively, Erik Lochtefeld and Matthew Maher achieve a pristine balance between savagery and tenderness. Meanwhile, Tony Amendola and Andy Murray's turns as cops Tupolski and Ariel combine a brutality akin to the Officer's in Kafka's horrifying torture story "In the Penal Colony" with a touch of the frazzled, sitcom dad. The upshot of the experience of seeing the production is a profound sense of awe at the potential of theater as a storytelling medium. Through March 11 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2025 Addison St (at Shattuck,) Berkeley. Tickets are $45-61; call (510) 647 2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed Jan. 31.

Rose. This sweeping journey across the life of one woman — and, through her, the life of Old World Jews — treats us to a handful of clear-eyed ideas that are both beautiful and rarely tackled on stage. What do the survivors of World War II, now old men and women, do with the anger that once protected them and now haunts their lives? Who, if anyone, gets to decide who is "Jewish enough" to lead Israel into the future? That these issues are so pressing makes it all the more frustrating that this 2 1/2-hour solo show is at least a half-hour too long. Bay Area favorites Naomi Newman and director Joan Mankin bring out many of the lovely, arresting little moments created by playwright Martin Sherman (wisely cutting out many more), and the final twist in Rose's tale packs a punch. But how startling and affecting this play would have been if we spent considerably less time in the nooks and crannies of Rose's life and dove head first into the heart of her grief. From Feb. 15-25 at the Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Ave. (at Martin Luther King), Berkeley. Tickets are $15-44; call 522-0786 or visit www.atjt.com. (Molly Rhodes) Reviewed Jan. 10.

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