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Our critics weigh in on local theater

Camino Real. Tennessee Williams' 1953 stream-of-consciousness fantasia set in a timeless no man's land is difficult to stage. The largely plotless drama revolving around broken dreams and futile attempts to escape the confines of a dead-end, vaguely Latin American seaport features a staggering 36 characters and many extras. Some of them are products solely of Williams' imagination. Others are figures from legend and history, such as Don Quixote, Jacques Casanova, and Lord Byron. Biz Duncan's set design for Actors Theatre's ambitious but otherwise arrhythmic, navel-gazing production manages to conjure Williams' claustrophobic dreamscape with its high yet flimsy-looking walls. To their credit, directors Christian Phillips and Keith Phillips explore every corner of the space, setting scenes at ground level, overhead on balconies, and even up and down the aisles that flank the seating area. Unfortunately, the acting and pacing of the production don't live up to the creativity of the set. Each of the 16 multiple-part-playing cast members seems to be starring in his or her individual, private play. Williams helpfully announces each of the 16 scenes (or "blocks") in his play as it progresses. The blocks do not go by fast enough. Through Dec. 8 at Actors Theatre of San Francisco, 855 Bush (at Mason), S.F. Tickets are $20-30; call 345-1287 or visit www.actorstheatresf.org. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed Nov. 14.

The Color Purple: The Musical About Love. Events in the Broadway musical adaptation of Alice Walker's novel and Steven Spielberg's film The Color Purple happen at such a bewildering speed that it's difficult to keep up. One moment we're watching the narrative's downtrodden protagonist Celie as a young girl playing with her sister Nettie. The next, Celie is pregnant. Then she's forced to marry the evil Ol' Mister. Next she's separated from Nettie. Then Ol' Mister's sexy mistress arrives in town. We barely have time to orient ourselves in the young black woman's misery when we're suddenly thrown into a full-blown African tribal dance scene complete with stomping natives waving banana leaves. A few bombastic production numbers such as the plucky war cry "Hell No!" help relieve the exhaustion and tedium of the plot's relentless trudge. The audience cannot help but respond to Felicia P. Field's ballsy Sofia as she swaggers about the stage bullying her husband Harpo into submission while turning him on with a sultry swish of her massive hips. "Hell No!" is Sofia's torch song, and she sings it as if she's Henry V about to take on the French at the Battle of Agincourt. But the musical throws away several prime opportunities to create dramatic shape. When Jeannette Bayardelle's Celie finally plucks up the courage to tell Ol' Mister what she thinks of him by belting out "I may be poor, I may be black, I may be ugly, but I'm here!" we freeze with expectation. But instead of launching into what could be Celie's answer to Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive," the music stops dead and the plot trundles on. Through Dec. 9 at the Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market (at Grove), S.F. Tickets are $35-99; call 551-2000 or visit www.shnsf.com. (C.V.) Reviewed Oct. 31.

The Rainmaker. In his production notes, director Mark Rucker describes N. Richard Nash's 1950s play as "a valentine to a sweeter time." It's easy to see this romance-laced domestic drama, in which a mysterious stranger turns up at a drought-blighted family farm claiming rain-inducing powers, through rose-tinted glasses. With its cast of hillbilly homesteaders, old-fashioned courting rituals, and conversations that revolve around heifers, bookkeeping, and five-cylinder Essex automobiles, the play might seem on the surface like an episode of The Waltons. Yet despite its cheery outlook and Rucker's ill-advised efforts to anchor A.C.T.'s production in a 1930s landscape of cowboy boots and Stetsons, the play resists being tied to the past. It feels very fresh, mostly thanks to the acting. Wearing a frumpy, schoolmarmish dress and an austerely coiffed brunette wig which clings as tightly to her skull as the character clings to her failing hopes at ensnaring a beau, René Augesen wears her lack of sex appeal as the unhappily unmarried farmer's daughter Lizzie Curry with a kind of clever pride. She might be as "plain as old shoes," but she knows that pretending to be a coquette would make her even uglier. Meanwhile, Geordie Johnson's Bill Starbuck, an outsider with questionable weather-changing powers, is total charisma. Peopled with sympathetic, loving characters, the play might be unfashionably upbeat in its outlook. But Nash's core message about the power of self-belief as an essential tool for survival and growth in a difficult world comes as a valentine to our own embittered times. Through Nov. 25 at the Geary Theater, 415 Geary (at Mason), S.F. Tickets are $17-82; call 749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org. (C.V.) Reviewed Nov. 7.

Also Playing

after the quake: Written by Haruki Murakami, translated by Jay Rubin, adapted and directed by Frank Galati. Through Nov. 25. Berkeley Repertory School of Theatre, 2071 Addison (at Shattuck), Berkeley, 510-647-2972, www.berkeleyrep.org.

Argonautika: Writer/director Mary Zimmerman joins Jason on his ancient quest for the Golden Fleece — an epic journey of love and loss, hubris and honor, danger and adventure. Through Dec. 16. Berkeley Repertory's Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison (at Shattuck), Berkeley, 510-647-2949.

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