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Our critics weigh in on local theater

Bird in the Hand. This is a new play written by sometime solo performance artist and professor of creative writing at S.F. State Anne Galjour. Originally inspired by her love of birds, she began the play in 2001 as an exercise in monologues and duets. The play follows three couples in San Francisco whose relationships are all affected by their interest (or lack thereof) in birds. The four-actor play uses birds in an urban landscape as a voyeuristic vehicle peering into the apartments and homes of the characters. Throughout the show, the actors perch and birdcall as both scenic transitions and as sound effects. As the characters lament the habitat fragmentation of the city experience, their own personal isolations are revealed. This play could be incredibly engaging to an audience of "birding" enthusiasts, but to a layperson, it was hard to stay connected and care for the characters. The sound effects were also a bit distracting. At times, there was ambient noise from elsewhere in the building, and it was hard to tell which were accidental noises, and which were part of the show. The actors performed the piece quite well, all of them successfully playing several characters; and the layering of the scenes was done artfully by Galjour. Bird in the Hand is a play custom-made for a bird enthusiast or nature lover. Through July 29 at the Berkeley City Club, 2315 Durant Ave., Berkeley. Tickets are $25-$9 on a sliding scale. Call 510-558-1381 or visit (Nara Dahlbacka) Reviewed July 11.

The Gravedigger's Tango. Local playwright Ian Walker's intriguing, though uneven, new drama explores the gray area separating life from death through the prism of tango, though the language of the Argentine art form is more implied than explicitly stated. It's there in the setting — a twilight cemetery where gravediggers cavort with grinning skulls — as well as in the melodramatic story-within-a-storyline, which owes a debt to Edgar Allan Poe and Alfred Hitchcock's 1951 murder-mystery Strangers on a Train. The plot concerns a hard-up twentysomething by the name of Pip, forced to take a job as a junior gravedigger at the local cemetery to makes ends meet. When Pip discovers a mysterious headstone with no dates on it, the rookie's bilious boss, Laszlo, begins to recount the story behind the grave. Laszlo's tombstone yarn transports us to the north of England some years previously when a chance encounter on a train between a youthful American doctor and an avuncular British physician leads to dramatic consequences. In some ways, Walker manages to infuse the spirit of the tango into his study about what it means to live and die. His characters live in extreme circumstances. Yet despite the fact that the drama literally takes place at the grave's edge, the production frequently shies away from striking out into the void. The acting style, which is naturalistic and understated, seems to apologize for the melodrama when it should embrace it. Through July 28 at Traveling Jewish Theatre, 470 Florida St., (between 17th Street and Mariposa), S.F. Tickets are $15-25; call 508-5614 or visit (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed Jul. 18.

The Pandora Experiment. For Christian Cagigal's newest magic show, the audience is not so much a subject of clinical study, but an object of affection. Cagigal stands on a living room rug counting audience members with his stage manager before stepping off and, moments later, re-emerging transformed to guide us through "the experiment." Cagigal uses antique objects that are well worn, simple and accessible; two music boxes with haunting chimes, small chests with the treasures of a child inside. A doll of porcelain and papier-mâché gazes soulfully throughout and feels as real as any of us. His performance takes the audience beyond just the willing suspension of disbelief and into another place in time where magic is not the work of an illusionist or performer but exists in creaky wooden boxes found in a grandparent's attic. The set and lighting underscore Cagigal's creation to create an ethereal beauty. His staging and sensitivity as he plays with his audience conveys a level of safety and trust so as to not feel duped, but included in the magic. What does The Pandora Experiment reveal? Above all else: imagination. Through July 28 at the Exit Theatre, 156 Eddy St. (between Mason & Taylor), S.F. Tickets are $12 - $20; call 673-3847 or visit (N.D.) Reviewed June 20.

Song of Myself.It's easy to lump Walt Whitman in with all those other 19th-century writers who mistook themselves for invisible eyeballs and meandered aimlessly through the woods reciting passages from the Bhagavad Gita. But if anyone can talk us into reclaiming the American bard, it's John O'Keefe. The playwright/performer's abbreviated version of "Song of Myself" — Whitman's fecund ode to the pleasures of loafing — is an art song in spoken form. Poised halfway between being a straight recitation and an imaginative interpretation of Whitman's poem, the performance plays with our intellect and emotions like an intoxicating piece of music. From the euphoric whoop of the opening line to the melting breath of the final thought as it dissolves into darkness, O'Keefe takes us through many keys, both major and minor, as he explores Whitman's universe. At times, the poem races hectically forward, the performer lurching after the words like someone fielding simultaneous calls on a cellphone. Elsewhere during the performance, the mood is more reflective. O'Keefe cozies up to individual audience members, creating a bond of intimacy with us through Whitman's words. The poet's erratic, stream-of-consciousness style may be easier to digest while reading privately than listening to someone recite his lines out loud. But thanks to the vitality and variety of O'Keefe's approach, it doesn't take much for us to feel a sense of affinity for Whitman's celebration of himself. Extended through July 28 at the Marsh San Francisco, 1062 Valencia St. (between 21st and 22nd sts.), S.F. Tickets are $15-25; call 1-800-838-3006 or visit (C.V.) Reviewed June 13.

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