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Our critics weigh in on local theater

The Bluest Eye. Published in 1970, Toni Morrison's debut novel tells the story of an impoverished 11-year-old black girl's journey from self-loathing to madness via rape, pregnancy, and infant mortality. This is serious stuff. But director Walter Dallas' wildly physical, slapstick-comedy-infused production plays Lydia Diamond's more low-key adaptation for as many laughs as it can. Members of the agile ensemble cartwheel about the stage, throw cartoon punches into empty space, fall flat on their backs as if they've slipped on imaginary banana skins, and freeze in comical poses as if caught — like clichéd deer — in the headlights. The production isn't all comedy. Shanique S. Scott's devastating performance as Pecola Breedlove, the little black girl who yearns for blue eyes, offers us a glimpse into the dark heart of Morrison's work. Dressed in a shapeless white dress, her chin lowered to her chest and her shoulders hunched so that it looks as if she has no neck, Scott's Pecola seems completely ill at ease in her dark skin. Despite Diamond's obvious connection with her source material through the direct use of many lines from Morrison's text, Scott's bittersweet performance, and the gaping emptiness of the bare set, the comedic elements prevail over the tragic in this production. Dallas' approach is captivating in its ability to connect with the audience. Yet it helps us forget that Morrison's novel has the power to make people cry. Through Nov. 11 at the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre, 620 Sutter (at Mason), S.F. Tickets are $22-36; call 474-8800 or visit www.lhtsf.org. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed Oct. 24.

Cassandra at Mission Creek. When I was a serious theater student in New York I did a lot of long exercises that involved rolling on the ground, bulging my eyes out, and summoning guttural shrieks from my core being. Perhaps this made me a better actor, but these exercises are a hard sell as entertainment. Director and writer John LeFan, one of the pioneers of Contact Improvisation, along with choreographer Anna Dal Pino, have no issues with bringing these somewhat self-indulgent techniques to their original production of the Greek myth of Cassandra. Taking stories from Euripides and Aeschylus, the eleven-member dancing and acting troupe uses dialogue, movement, and polyrhythmic vocalizations to enact the tragic life of Cassandra, who incurred the wrath of Apollo by not returning his affections and "cheating" him out of children. I appreciate that LeFan has assembled diverse performers, dancers, and clowns (an escape artist too!), and even creates wonderful space for a woman using a wheelchair (Megan Schirle) to dance and express herself. But spending 80 minutes listening to Greek gods and mortals cry to the heavens, beat their chests, and speak in repetitive patterns is perhaps a better exercise for the performers than the audience. Through Nov. 10 at Mariposa Studio, 2808 Mariposa (at Florida), S.F. Tickets are $15-30; call 861-4330 or visit www.dancersgroup.org. (Nathaniel Eaton) Reviewed Oct. 24.

Mrs. Warren's Profession. The intriguing premise of using masks to highlight the characters' duplicity in George Bernard Shaw's play never gets off the ground in this Performers Under Stress production. When they are compelled to share their true feelings about each other and the oldest profession in the world, the masks come off, but the broad and unspecific acting style remains the same. A few moments stand out, such as when Mrs. Warren (Valerie Fachman) reveals to her headstrong daughter (Katherine Leilani McDowell) the source of her wealth and freedom. Yet director Scott Baker fails to use the mask motif to really penetrate or explore the text, and most of the actors lack the chops to make the turns from mask to emotional truth and back again resonate at all. This two-hour-plus production starts off with a promising idea and quickly fades, weighed down by its inability to meet its ambitious dramatic goals. Through Nov. 11 at The Garage, 975 Howard (at Fifth St.), S.F. Tickets are $10-20; call 948-5637 or visit www.pusworks.org. (Molly Rhodes) Reviewed Oct. 24.

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. 17 at SF Playhouse, 533 Sutter (at Powell), S.F. Tickets are $38; call 677-9597 or visit www.sfplayhouse.org. (M.R.) Reviewed Oct. 10.

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