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Our critics weigh in on local theater

DIVAfest Cabaret: Sassy & Seductive. This short and sweet one-hour cabaret returns as part of the larger DIVAfest and is presented in the back room of the old Original Joe's Italian Restaurant down in the Tenderloin. As the title suggests, this evening is all about Bay Area divas and it's hosted by the biggest diva of all, the wonderful Sean Owens. Though the music is composed by a man (the accomplished Don Seaver), the three vocalists are women and the lyricists are women. Unfortunately, the vocalists are a bit stiff and, though they have fine and varied singing voices, aren't well matched up with their material. An unexpected highlight of the evening is poet Pireeni Sundaralingam of Sri Lanka. With her accent and piano accompaniment, she delivers a mesmerizing performance, playfully borrowing lines from Gone With the Wind and Bride of Frankenstein.The true star of the show, though, is first-time lyricist Mia Paschal. Using a broad range of styles, Paschal has no trouble transitioning from a scorching ballad titled You Don't Love Me Yet, to the finale — a fun alphabetical tirade bashing men with lines like "P is for the prick who texted me goodbye." Through May 12 at Original Joe's Restaurant, 144 Taylor (between Eddy and Turk), S.F. Tickets are $10; call 673-3847 or visit www.sffringe.org. (N.E.) Reviewed May 2.

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.

Past Perfect. Nicky Silver's latest play opens in the middle of a crisis for the well-to-do Dunham family. Thirtysomething siblings Betsy and Seth have returned to the nest to pay their last respects to their father, Philip, who is about to die of cancer. Seth, a bratty, unemployed gay actor, and Betsy, a recovering alcoholic divorcee who's still in love with her abusive ex-husband, aren't in particularly good shape at the start of the action. So when their mother, Dina, announces her plans to cash out her chips the moment Philip cashes his in and leave never to return, the siblings struggle to make sense of their feelings of loneliness and abandonment. Like the playwright's explosive 2004 drama, Beautiful Child (which received its west coast premiere at Theatre Rhino in 2005) Past Perfect addresses the theme of conditional versus unconditional love between parents and their children. Beautiful Child's brisk sense of humor and jaw-dropping narrative about a well-mannered young schoolteacher's return home following the fallout of a romantic relationship with one of his 8-year-old students, leaves us feeling disturbed and deeply moved. But Past Perfect only makes us yearn for the tragicomic perfection of its predecessor. Through May 20 at Theatre Rhinoceros, 2926 16th St. (between Mission and South Van Ness) S.F. Tickets are $15-25; call 861-5079 or visit www.therhino.org. (C.V.) Reviewed May. 2.

Private Jokes, Public Places. Until the final moments of this satirical skewering of the elite architectural world, playwright Oren Safdie has his characters and his language right on the money. Primed with the inside knowledge that comes from being the son of famous architect Moshe Safdie, Oren Safdie's creates two equally renowned and deliciously vicious architects who relish making mincemeat of hapless graduate student Margaret's thesis project, crushing her vision as they fill themselves up with hot air. You wait with anticipation to see what Margaret will do when she's pushed too far — and actors Robert Parsons and Charles Dean have a ball pushing her as far as they can. But when Margaret finally snaps, the play loses it punch and becomes a serious drama about her struggles through life. Part of the problem is that as Margaret, M.J. Kang is unable to harness the depths of emotion needed to make her outbursts moving. But the greater problem lies in the sudden shift from a fresh, delightfully detailed story of architectural ambition to a generic, well-trodden story of individual sacrifice and inner strength. By trying to force his play to be something more — it's not just about architecture, get it, but about life — Safdie ends up making it something less. Through May 13 at Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $38; call 510-843-4822 or visit www.auroratheatre.org. (M.R.) Reviewed May 2.

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