Benedictus. If you read the newspapers with a discerning eye, you'll get the strong sense that we'll be at war with Iran in the very near future. If you are like a vast majority of our nation's populace (myself included), you probably don't know much about Iran outside of talk of nuclear proliferation and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's inflammatory statements denying the Holocaust and stating that Iran has no homosexuals. The new play Benedictus is a result of a collaboration among artists from Iran, Israel, and the U.S. with the purpose of putting a human face on the rising conflict among the three nations. At the center of this ambitious piece are two men, childhood friends born in Iran, who after being estranged both politically and nationally, agree to a secret meeting at a Benedictine monastery in the back streets of Rome. What ensues is a heated personal dialogue that touches on terrorism, blackmail, and bribery. There's also plenty of backroom dealing to essentially avoid World War III. This is a fictionalized meeting but gives an intriguing peek into the secret deals and political motivations that are most certainly going on among these nations behind closed doors in the real world. Motti Lerner's script offers no clean answers but certainly helps to clarify and humanize these multifaceted issues that are drawing our nations into an avoidable conflict. Through Oct. 21 at The Thick House, 1695 18th St. (between Carolina & Arkansas), S.F. Tickets are $10-50; call 410-8081 or visit www.goldenthread.org. (Nathaniel Eaton) Reviewed Oct. 10.

Big Co. Boxcar Theatre's new show tells a story that has been immortalized many times in the past, from Joni Mitchell's 1970s folk song "Big Yellow Taxi" to Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott's 2004 documentary The Corporation. The plot juxtaposes two businesses – a tiny, family-run Russian deli, and the massive multinational next door. As Nikolai Borísov (Nick Olivero) and his sister Sonya (Sarah Korda) struggle to make ends meet and keep their customers satisfied in an increasingly hostile, Starbucks- and McDonald's-driven marketplace, the marketing director at Bhigge Company, Mr. Mann (Peter Matthews), and his environmentally astute assistant Jenny Doh (Dana Lau) strategize about how best to fulfill their organization's corporate responsibility mandate while maintaining a staggering profit margin. With its upfront messages and scenes loaded with Internet-search-engine-quality research, the production feels at times like a college essay in theatrical form. It could also use some dramaturgical honing in places. Yet Boxcar's heartfelt, humorous journey into the black soul of corporate America puts an interesting twist on the agitprop theater tradition by showing us the downsides and upsides of big and small businesses alike. Through Oct. 20 at Boxcar Theatre, 505 Natoma (at Fourth St.), S.F. Tickets are free; call 776-1747 or visit www.boxcartheatre.org. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed Oct. 3.

Bulrusher. Set in 1955 in Boonville, California, Eisa Davis' Pulitzer Prize-nominated drama takes place during one of the most turbulent periods in modern American history, from the racially provoked murder of black 14-year-old Emmett Till to black activist Rosa Parks' refusal to give up her bus seat to a white man. But racial issues, at least on the surface, couldn't be further removed from the world of Davis' play. A coming-of-age story set in small-town California about a young, black woman with mysterious powers, the play explores the tensions that lie beneath even the most seemingly "color-blind" of communities. In Margo Hall and Ellen Sebastian Chang's expressively directed production, Shotgun Players turns the theater into something akin to a Californian "Land that Time Forgot." With its layers of wooden decking, secluded corners shaded by thick foliage, and trickling waterways, Lisa Clark's lost kingdom of a set design deposits us in a secluded world. Self-absorbed, often introverted performances from the cast work with the setting to create an experience that feels entirely intimate. Eventually, though, the increasingly melodramatic narrative disrupts the sacrosanct space. While the heavy-handed plotting reveals some hard political and social realities about life in even the most apparently benign of communities, it also inadvertently swallows Davis' evocative use of "Boontling" (the local dialect) and turns what was, at the start of the play, an extraordinary set of characters and circumstances, into rather ordinary fare by the end. Through Oct. 28 at The Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby (at Martin Luther King Jr. Way), Berkeley. Tickets are $17-25; call 510-841-6500 or visit www.shotgunplayers.org. (C.V.) Reviewed Oct. 10.

Countercoup. Over the past 15 years, the Marsh Theater has developed a very successful system of attracting solo artists or would-be performers to develop their life stories for the stage. With a combination of in-house directors (David Ford and Charlie Varon), classes and venues to preview smaller sections of developing work, and a main stage to show off the best full-length material, the Marsh has created a hybrid style of theater that is best described as long-form storytelling. The resulting work is not always slick or completely polished and is often performed by storytellers fairly new to the stage, but the experience is always an intimate look into another person's life. Countercoup's writer and performer Mark McGoldrick did not train as an actor; in fact, he works as a public defender in the East Bay, but when he rolls onstage in the wheelchair he uses, he has quite a story to tell. His rebellious youth of drinking and fighting was cut short when an accident paralyzed him from the waist down. Much of this play focuses on his wonderfully detailed struggle in rehabilitation and the stormy relationships with his family and a good friend. As an actor, McGoldrick is still discovering the material and often indulges a few beats too long or ventures into slightly clichéd material. But as a storyteller he imbues his history with a rough, casual poetry and a soulful wisdom that an actor could never bring. Through Oct. 20 at the Marsh, 1062 Valencia (between 21st and 22nd sts.) S.F. Tickets are $15-35; call 800-838-3006 or visit www.themarsh.org. (N.E.) Reviewed Oct. 3.

Holding the Man. Though this adaptation of Australian Timothy Conigrave's memoir treads a lot of familiar territory – gay men in the '80s struggling with relationships! And AIDS! – there is a sweetness and honesty suffused throughout the production that makes it often charming to watch. As Tim and John, the couple at the center of the story whose trials and triumphs we follow, Ben Randle and Bradly Mena have an open warmth that makes you root for them from the get-go. Director Matthew Graham Smith also keeps the action running smoothly on Jon Wai-keung Lowe's ever-rotating set. The two-and-a-half-hour play loses some of its steam after the intermission: Tim's journey through acting school feels underdeveloped, and all the ins and outs of his relationship with John, while well observed, do not always move the story along. Touches like Australian accents and Scott Ludwig's haunting puppets work well at some points and at others feel tacked on and distracting. But there is good reason Tommy Murphy won Australia's most prestigious playwriting award for his adaptation. The heart with which Smith and his ensemble embrace the tale reflects the humor and resiliency that the community embraced when it first started fighting back against AIDS. Through Nov. 4 at New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness (at Market), S.F. Tickets are $22-34; call 861-8972 or visit www.nctcsf.org. (Molly Rhodes) Reviewed Oct. 17.

Six Degrees of Separation. It seems entirely unfair to blame a show for not being "New York" enough, as if somehow only New York held the key to good American theater. And yet what was missing from SF Playhouse's ambitious and heartfelt production of John Guare's beautiful play was the sense of watching a privileged, detached New York woman find connection and meaning in the most unlikely of places. As Ouisa and her husband Flan, Susi Damilano and Robert Parsons could just as easily be a wealthy couple living the good life in Marin. They capture the couple's charm and air of easy entitlement, yet they lack the bite and the drive people thrive on in New York high society. It is this ambition and neediness that we should see mirrored – and ultimately threatened – by a young black man who shows up on their doorstep claiming to be a school friend of their children. The production has many fine and funny moments in its crisp 90 minutes. But because Damilano and Parsons never exude the Manhattanites' darker side, the final moments of possible redemption never feel fully earned. Through Nov. at SF Playhouse, 533 Sutter (at Powell), S.F. Tickets are $38; call 415-677-9597 or visit www.sfplayhouse.org.(Molly Rhodes) Reviewed Oct.10.

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 and 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 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, 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 reciting his lines aloud. 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. Through Oct. 20 at the Marsh, 1062 Valencia (at 21st St.), S.F. Tickets are $15-25; call 800-838-3006 or visit www.themarsh.org. (C.V.) Reviewed June 13.

Also Playing

After the Quake

Berkeley Rep, 2071 Addison (at Shattuck), Berkeley, 510-647-2972.

Appomattox

War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness (at Grove), 864-3330.

Attrition

Exit Theatre on Taylor, 277 Taylor (at Ellis), 673-3847.

BATS: Sunday Players

Fort Mason, Bldg. B, Marina & Buchanan, 474-6776.

Benedictus

The Thick House, 1695 18th St. (at Arkansas), 401-8081.

Big City Improv

Shelton Theater, 533 Sutter (at Powell), 433-1226.

Blues in the Night

Post Street Theatre, 450 Post (at Mason), 321-2900.

The Bluest Eye

Lorraine Hansberry Theatre, 620 Sutter (at Mason), 474-8800.

Camino Real

Actors Theatre San Francisco, 855 Bush (at Taylor), 345-1287.

The Color Purple: The Musical About Love

Orpheum Theater, 1192 Market (at Eighth St.), 512-7770.

Creepshow Live

Dark Room Theater, 2263 Mission (at 18th St.), 401-7987.

D'Arc, Woman on Fire

Shotwell Studios, 3252A 19th St. (at Folsom), 289-2000.

Every Inch a King

Berkeley City Club, 2315 Durant (at Ellsworth), Berkeley, 510-843-4822.

GayProv

Off-Market Studio, 965 Mission (at Fifth St.), 896-6477.

Improv Revolution

Off-Market Theater, 965 Mission (at Fifth St.), 896-6477.

"Ladies of the Silver Screen"

Empire Plush Room, York Hotel, 940 Sutter (at Hyde), 885-2800.

Love, Chaos & Dinner

Pier 29, Embarcadero (at Battery), 273-1620.

Lovers and Other Strangers

Shelton Theater, 533 Sutter (at Powell), 433-1226.

The Magic Flute

War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness (at Grove), 864-3330.

Masked Ball

War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness (at Grove), 864-3330.

Monday Night Improv Jam

Off-Market Theater, 965 Mission (at Fifth St.), 896-6477.

Monday Night Marsh

The Marsh, 1062 Valencia (at 22nd St.), 826-5750.

Murder Mystery Dinner

The Archbishop's Mansion, 1000 Fulton (at Steiner), 563-7872.

Old Neighborhood

Off-Market Theater, 965 Mission (at Fifth St.), 896-6477.

Pandora Experiment

Exit Theatre, 156 Eddy (at Taylor), 673-3847.

Ruthless! The Musical

The Purple Onion, 140 Columbus (at Pacific), 217-8400.

Second Time Around

Empire Plush Room, York Hotel, 940 Sutter (at Hyde), 885-2800.

Shocktoberfest Publicly Executes Morality On Stage Friday

The Hypnodrome, 575 10th St. (at Bryant), 248-1900.

Shopping! The Musical

Shelton Theater, 533 Sutter (at Powell), 433-1226.

Solohouse

Shelton Theater, 533 Sutter (at Powell), 433-1226.

Teatro ZinZanni

Pier 29, Embarcadero (at Battery), 438-2668.

That Old Bat Magic: Bat Tales

Cowell Theater, Herbst Pavilion, Fort Mason (Marina & Buchanan), 345-7575.

Theatre Rhinoceros: The First Thirty Years

Theatre Rhinoceros, 2926 16th St. (at South Van Ness), 861-5079.

Use Both Hands

Phoenix Theatre, 414 Mason (at Geary), Suite 601, 989-0023.

The W. Kamau Bell Curve

Shelton Theater, 533 Sutter (at Powell), 433-1226.

Yugen Presents

Noh Space, 2840 Mariposa (at Florida), 621-7978.

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