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Our critics weigh in on local theater

American $uicide. Mark Jackson's loose adaptation of The Suicide, a 1928 satire by Russian dramatist Nikolai Erdman, tells the story of Sam Small, a hapless unemployed husband whose sweet if naive dream of pursuing an acting career morphs into a grotesque nightmare following a misunderstanding over a piece of sausage. When Sam's thespian ambitions get confused with his desire to make money and his wife Mary's fears about Sam taking his own life, our hero finds himself coerced by his opportunistic neighbor Albert into going along with a spectacular moneymaking opportunity. The only trouble is, he has to kill himself in the name of the highest bidder in order to reap the financial rewards. It is an honor hotly contested by any number of suitors from a radical Middle Eastern faction and PETA to a washed-up movie director and a has-been screen siren, all of whom hope to send out a strong message to the world by being linked to Sam's self-immolation. At once a savage diatribe against the debilitating impact on the individual of this country's throwaway, media-saturated, dumbed-down culture, while at the same time an exercise in careening physical farce (the entire 2 1/2 hours is performed in the throwback, hammy style of 1930s screwball comedies), the sprawling, raucous production reels between contemporary social satire and old-fashioned music-hall shtick. Despite its energy and humor, American $uicide feels overly long, wearingly loud, and ultimately about as provocative as a debate in Entertainment Weekly about the best and worst dresses on Oscar night. Through March 11 at the Thick House, 1695 18th St. (between Arkansas and Carolina) S.F. Tickets are $25-30; call 437-6775 or visit www.zspace.org. (C.V.) 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.

The Magnificence of the Disaster.The material doesn't get any more raw or emotionally wrought than the content of Rebecca Fisher's new solo show. In 1995, Fisher lost her mother in a brutal and highly publicized murder that rocked Memphis. Four years later she lost her brother in another devastating and tragic episode. The title is drawn from the premise that Southerners have "an inherently different approach to tragedy because [they] lost the Civil War. There's a magnificence in how bad it got." This is dark and heavy material, but Fisher employs plenty of Southern-styled comedy and physical humor to relate the tender details of her late mother (social drinking at "Margarita Mondays" and jazzercise workouts at the Baptist Healthplex). The show veers sharply back and forth between despair and an almost forced joviality — much like the reality of mourning — that can be an emotionally confusing narrative arc for an audience to connect with. This, most likely, is due to the shocking fact that the murder trial has been ongoing and just concluded three weeks ago. Magnificence offers up an unresolved, yet unnerving and unflinching look into one family's tragedy. Fisher has absolutely no distance from these heartbreaking events and she points out that the plot doesn't wrap up neatly like a Law & Orderepisode. Though this monologue feels understandably unfinished, both in structure and tone, it is a moving and unique experience to witness a performer act out scenarios onstage that she is still working through in present-day life. Extended run through March 25 at the Marsh Theater, 1602 Valencia (between 21st & 22nd), S.F. Tickets are $15-22; call 800-838-3006 or visit www.themarsh.org. (N.E.) Reviewed Feb. 14.

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, more or less 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. (C.V.) Reviewed Jan. 31.

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