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Our critics weigh in on local theater

Big Death & Little Death. When "Dad" walks onstage freshly returned from fighting in Desert Storm, his all-American pot-smoking son asks, "How was the war?" He answers quickly, "Sometimes you have to kill people to help them. At one point, I caught on fire." Without missing a beat "Mom" pipes in: "I had an affair with another man involving lots of heavy petting and oral sex!" This is the typical, rapid-fire dialogue that playwright Mickey Birnbaum writes, wasting no time getting hilariously to the point. Big Death was originally conceived as a short opening act for death-metal bands and revolves around two likable teenage siblings caught in a bizarrely dysfunctional family. They charismatically try to navigate illicit drugs (plenty of brilliant tweaker philosophy), inappropriate sex (blowjobs from the school guidance counselor), and inappropriate parenting (Dad likes to photograph his daughter in sexy crime-scene scenarios). Birnbaum is a successful Los Angeles screenwriter, which explains his penchant for using disjointed, short vignettes to accelerate the action. While some sections lag and are derivative of Beavis & Butt-head, there is an exciting, palpable energy reminiscent of Mamet's Suburbia, and the brooding, doomsday flavor of Donnie Darko. It's a sharp satire that in its final moments turns into an apocalyptic fairy tale. Through March 4 at the Traveling Jewish Theatre, 470 Florida (between 17th and Mariposa), S.F. Tickets are $20; call 439-2456 or visit www.crowdedfire.org. (N.E.) Reviewed Feb. 21.

The Dying Gaul. Before he penned The Dying Gaul in 1995, Craig Lucas was best known as a romantic playwright with a knack for sly social commentary. Lucas took an angry, dark turn with The Dying Gaul, which depicts the destructiveness of AIDS compounded by the soul-sucking nature of Hollywood. Sadly, Lucas' heartfelt story fails to earn its shocking end. It doesn't help that he's probing a well-worn topic — the mean things people in Hollywood do. As the protagonist, a young gay screenwriter, actor Michael Phillis, has a sweet, alluring aura that draws us into his tale, and the production has an easy, bubbly pace that works well against all the tricks Lucas has up his sleeve. But the production also suffers from an utter lack of sexual chemistry between the three leads. (Moaning in the dark before a scene that climaxes in an awkward office-chair-to-office-chair embrace only makes matters worse.) Without the visible lust for fame and money and power that brings these people together, the repulsion that eventually drives them to screw each other over becomes tepid at best. Without the fire underneath, the final moment of tragic destiny only earns a shrug and a passing thought of, well, you sold out to Hollywood — what did you expect? Through March 4 at the New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness Ave. (at Market St.), S.F. Tickets are $22-34; call 861-8972 or visit www.nctcsf.org. (M.R.) Reviewed Feb. 21.

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 post-Gold 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. (C.V.) Reviewed Feb. 7.

Joe Turner's Come and Gone. There will come a time, oh yes, there will come a time, deep in the heart of the first act, when you will wonder where playwright August Wilson and director Stanley E. Williams are leading you. You will wonder why Mr. Williams staged so much talking as sitting and if Mr. Wilson ever met a mythical metaphor that did not suit his taste. You will wonder who is this Herald Loomis and why does he stalk around so. The spirit will rise up in you to stretch your legs and visit the theater lobby. But if you allow the words to wash over you, and if you hold those words somewhere within you until the second act, then all that seemed small and obscure will come together before your eyes. Your spirit will marvel to see actor Bernard K. Addison take what has been closed and dark in Herald and wrench it open with his own two hands. You will bear witness to the story of a man who learns to stand on his own two legs and be. Through March 4 at Lorraine Hansberry Theatre, 620 Sutter St. (at Mason), S.F. Tickets are $16-32; call 474-8800 or visit www.LHTSF.org. (M.R.) Reviewed Feb.14.

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