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Our critics weigh in on local theater

After the War. A major new play by one of this country's most eminent chroniclers of the Asian-American experience on stage, Philip Kan Gotanda's drama promised to be a highlight of the local performing arts calendar and a fitting centerpiece for A.C.T.'s 40th anniversary season. The premise is intriguing. Set in a Japanese-AmericanÐowned boarding house in San Francisco's ethnically diverse Fillmore District in 1948, the play chronicles the return of the Japanese population to a much-changed city from the internment camps where thousands of them had been incarcerated after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. But owing to the rhythmically inert nature of director Carey Perloff's staging, the heavy-handedness of many of the exchanges, and the monotonous, episodic structure of the play, the story fails to make an impact. Through April 22 at American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary (between Taylor and Mason), S.F. Tickets are $17.50-81.50; call 749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org. (C.V.) Reviewed Apr. 11.

Hypnodrome Head Trips. It's a titillating concept to revive the Grand Guignol, the terror theater that ran for 65 years in Paris around the turn of the 20th century. Tucked away underneath the Hwy. 101 overpass in SOMA, the Hypnodrome is the perfect setting for a Guignol revival with its player pianos, lanterns, and "shock box" seating that vibrates and is curtained off. The priest at the bar opens beers with his battle ax and reminds patrons they can do anything they want behind those curtains. This is the world of the Thrill Peddlers, the blood-splattering theater company that is up to its usual shocking mischief in a new production of six twisted shorts. In one short, a curious daughter finds a floating head kept alive in an antique machine (brilliant design by Jonathan Horton) and decides to pleasure herself with it; in another, a cross-dresser huffs sodium pentothal and is inspired to burn people's faces off with a hot iron. Maybe modern audiences accustomed to slasher films will find such moments ho-hum, but they won't be yawning during the second-act segment "Orgy in the Lighthouse," a whore-burning scene that manages to be both arousing and disturbing. Through June 2 at the Hypnodrome, 575 10th St. (between Bryant and Division), S.F. Tickets are $25; call 800-838-3006 or visit www.thrillpeddlers.com. (N.E.) Reviewed April 11.

Jesus Hopped the "A" Train.On a gray concrete set, deftly standing in for Riker's Island Prison in New York, two adjacent cells hold two murderers. One is Angel Cruz (Daveed Diggs), an atheist on trial for shooting a reprehensible cult leader in the ass, and the other is Lucius Jenkins (Carl Lumbly), a brutal serial killer and born-again Christian. Thus the setup: an "angel" in one cage, a "devil" in another. What ensues is a masterful debate about anger, innocence, lying, and ultimately being "right" in God's eyes. Diggs' intellectually articulate delivery is finely nuanced with a voice edged with vulnerable tears, and Lumbly effortlessly makes Lucius soulful and inspirational — a difficult task. This wouldn't be possible without Stephen Adly Guirgis' spitfire dialogue that builds, twists, and relentlessly questions characters' motivations. Guirgis adeptly spins the debate: Will you lie for what you believe in, or will you step up and pay a bigger price for that belief? This is one of those singular theatrical occasions when a top-notch script is helmed by a solid director (Bill English) and performed by a splendidly skilled and committed cast. Gabriel Marin is deceptively charismatic as the corrections officer bent on breaking inmates. Susi Damilano, as Angel's compassionately torn attorney, and Joe Madero, as the kindhearted guard, round out the cast and bring a softness to this searing drama. It's rare that a night of theater can deliver on so many complex levels of intellect and emotion. This production should not be missed. Through April 21 at the SF Playhouse, 533 Sutter (between Powell and Mason), S.F. Tickets are $18-60; call 677-9596 or visit www.sfplayhouse.org. (N.E.) Reviewed April 4.

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 April 28 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.

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