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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 (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 (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 (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,

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.

Based on a Totally True Story: Comedy by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, directed by John Dixon, about a young, talented playwright and comic book writer. Through Dec. 16. New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness (at Market), 861-8972,

BATS: Sunday Players: Each week Bay Area Theatresports players pit their improv work against all comers as the audience votes them off one by one until the winner stands alone on the stage. Sundays, 8 p.m., $8, Fort Mason, Bldg. B (Marina & Buchanan), 474-6776.

The Crew Goes Musical: BATS' advanced student ensemble presents a night of made up musicals with improvised genres, themes, songs, and more. Sun., Nov. 25. Bayfront Theater, Fort Mason, Bldg. B (Marina & Buchanan), 474-8935.

"Beach Blanket Babylon": A North Beach perennial featuring crazy hats, media personality caricatures, a splash of romance, and little substance. $25-$65. Club Fugazi, 678 Green (at Powell), 421-4222.

The Bible: The Complete Word of God (abridged) & Completely Hollywood (abridged): Reduced Shakespeare Company production. Through Jan. 9, 2008. Marines Memorial Theater, 609 Sutter (at Mason), 771-6900,

Big City Improv: Actors take audience suggestions and create comedy from nothing. Fridays, 10 p.m., $15, Shelton Theater, 533 Sutter (at Powell), 433-1226,

Black Nativity: Back for its ninth consecutive year, expanded with new songs, choreography, and a new set, as well as featuring the leading gospel voices in the Bay Area. Nov. 23-Dec. 23. Lorraine Hansberry Theatre, 620 Sutter (at Mason), 474-8800,

Charlotte Rae: The legendary comic actress first found worldwide fame during the 1980s as Edna Garrett on Diff'rent Strokes and then as housemother on The Facts of Life. Now at the age of 81, she arrives in San Francisco to debut her brand-new cabaret show. Nov. 27-Dec. 2. Empire Plush Room, York Hotel, 940 Sutter (at Hyde), 885-2800,

Crowd You're in With: Pulitzer-nominated Rebecca Gilman's fresh and moving new play takes a close look at modern families and friendships. Through Dec. 8. Magic Theatre, Fort Mason, Bldg. D (Marina & Buchanan), 441-8822,

Dodo for President: A Custom Made Theatre Company comedy by Mark Eisman, directed by Leah S. Abrams. Through Dec. 8. Off-Market Theater, 965 Mission (at Fifth St.), 896-6477,

Escapades: San Francisco's all-female clown troupe presents a spectacle that accelerates to comic disaster. Through Dec. 9, Shotwell Studios, 3252A 19th St. (at Folsom), 289-2000,

Family Drama: A completely improvised story in the form of a traditional three-act stage play. The story unfolds in real time on one set with each actor playing only one character. The audience selects the title for the show, which suggest the themes, stories, etc. All you know is that a family of some kind is getting together for Thanksgiving. Everything else will be created right in front of your eyes. Fri., Nov. 23; Sat., Nov. 24. Bayfront Theater, Fort Mason, Bldg. B (Marina & Buchanan), 474-8935.

GayProv: All levels of improvisational actors, gay or straight, are welcome at this weekly improv jam geared toward gays and lesbians. Sundays, 8 p.m., $5. Off-Market Studio, 965 Mission (at Fifth St.), 896-6477,

In the Land of the Grasshopper Song: Based on the award-winning book, this heartwarming story follows the adventures of two women who set out from the East Coast in 1908 to be "field matrons" for the Karuk Indian Tribe of Northern California. Through Dec. 2. Magic Theatre, Fort Mason, Bldg. D, Marina & Buchanan, 441-8822,

"Grounded?": New Visual Art, Public Intervention, Performance & Media in Search of Physical, Personal, Social, Political & Creative Ground. Through Dec. 15. Intersection for the Arts, 446 Valencia (at 15th St.), 626-3311,

Jersey Boys: The story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons and how they went from a group of blue-collar boys from the wrong side of the tracks to one of the biggest American pop music sensations of all time. Through Dec. 30, $30-$90. Curran Theatre, 445 Geary (between Taylor and Mason), 551-2000.

KML: For the Very First Time: Killing My Lobster's first-ever all-female sketch comedy show. Through Dec. 9, ODC Theater, 3153 17th St. (at Shotwell), 863-9834,

Kooza: Written and directed by David Shiner, Kooza is a return to the origins of Cirque du Soleil that combines two circus traditions – acrobatic performance and the art of clowning. The show highlights the physical demands of human performance in all its splendor and fragility, presented in a colorful mélange that emphasizes bold slapstick humor. The show starts with The Trickster bursting onto the scene like a jack-in-a-box right in front of The Innocent, and that is just the first of many surprises to follow. The Innocent's journey brings him into contact with a panoply of comic characters such as the King, the Trickster, the Heimloss, the Pickpocket, and the Obnoxious Tourist and his Bad Dog. Through Jan. 13, 2008, AT&T Park, 24 Willie Mays Plaza (at Third and King sts.), 972-2000.

La Rondine: Opera by Giacomo Puccini, directed by Stephen Barlow. Through Nov. 29. War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness (at Grove), 864-3330,

Let It Snow: An Improvised Holiday Musical: An improvised holiday musical, filled with good old-fashioned Broadway singing and dancing. Each performance is a new musical, set in the real hometown of an audience member. Nov. 23-Dec. 16. Phoenix Theatre, 414 Mason (at Geary), Suite 601, 989-0023.

Macbeth: Verdi's take on Shakespeare's "Scottish play." Through Dec. 2. War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness (at Grove), 864-3330,

Monday Night Improv Jam: It's been all around town, doubled then disappeared ... and now it returns. It's still $5 and will feature long form improv, presented by you the improvisers of SF. We'll have a new host each week and look forward to sponsor groups as well. Mondays, 8 p.m. Continues through Dec. 31, $5, Off-Market Theater, 965 Mission (at Fifth St.), 896-6477,

Monday Night Marsh: Each week a different lineup of musicians, actors, performance artists, and others take the stage at this regular event that's hosted local celebs like Josh Kornbluth and Marga Gomez in the past; see for a lineup of future shows. Mondays, $7. The Marsh, 1062 Valencia (at 22nd St.), 826-5750,

The Mousetrap: Agatha Christie's whodunit. Nov. 23-Dec. 17. Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts, 1601 Civic (at Locust), Walnut Creek, 925-943-7469,

Murder Mystery Dinner: A dinner that begins with detectives gathering to split $5 million in royalties from their latest book. Includes fruit and cheese reception and three-course dinner. Beverages available for purchase. One Saturday a month. Call for specific date. Saturdays, 6:30 p.m., $85, The Archbishop's Mansion, 1000 Fulton (at Steiner), 563-7872.

Necessity of Hank: In this psychedelic dramedy set within the confines of a dentist's office and told from two perspectives, Hank explores issues of keeping up appearances and illusive self-respect. Through Dec. 15. Exit Theatre, 156 Eddy (at Taylor), 673-3847,

No Such Thing: A low-level corporate employee experiences a series of tumultuous events in his personal and professional life. Through Dec. 1. New Langton Arts, 1246 Folsom (at Eighth St.), 626-5416,

Oh, Lady! Lady!!: A young man's wedding plans are derailed by a vampy former flame, a jewel thief out for one last spree, and an imperious future mother-in-law who has a shocking secret. Nov. 23-Dec. 16. Eureka Theatre, 215 Jackson (at Front), 788-7469,

Race Is a Lie: A drama by River Jackson in rhyming couplets of iambic pentameter. Through Nov. 30, $15-$20, 800-838-3006. SF Playhouse Stage 2, 533 Sutter (at Powell) Second Fl..

Rake's Progress: A morality tale that cautions of the outcome of a dissolute life, while portraying such a life in imaginatively graphic terms. Nov. 23-Dec. 9. War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness (at Grove), 864-3330,

Seussical, the Musical: A musical romp through the world of Dr. Seuss. Through Dec. 2. The Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby (at MLK Jr.), Berkeley, 510-841-6500.

Shopping! The Musical: Songs and sketches about shopping. Daily, $23-$29, Shelton Theater, 533 Sutter (at Powell), 433-1226,

Solohouse: A new monthly showcase presented and directed by W. Kamau Bell, one of San Francisco's finest comedians. Sundays. Continues through Dec. 2, $10. Shelton Theater, 533 Sutter (at Powell), 433-1226,

Staircase: One of the first gay plays to tackle Broadway and the big screen. Through Dec. 16, $15-$35. Theatre Rhinoceros, 2926 16th St. (at South Van Ness), 861-5079,

Stardust and Empty Wagons: A tribute to the culture, music, and everyday life of a New Orleans now struggling to be reborn. Through Nov. 29. Brava Theater Center, 2781 24th St. (at York), 647-2822.

Teatro ZinZanni: A bewitching evening of European cabaret, cirque arts, theatrical spectacle, and original live music, all blended with a five-course gourmet dinner, set in the nightclub of your dreams, now in its eighth season in San Francisco. Current show is The Royale Invitation. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 6 p.m., $116-$140, 438-2668, Pier 29, Embarcadero (at Battery), 273-1620.

Troy: Gates of Hell: Drama directed by Mohammad Kowsar. Through Dec. 2, SFSU Campus/Little Theater, 1600 Holloway (at 19th Ave.) (Creative Arts Bldg.), 338-2467.

The Velveteen Rabbit: Featuring ODC/Dance's energetic and imaginative dancing and recorded narration by legendary actor Geoff Hoyle, this production is fun for the whole family. Nov. 23-Dec. 9. Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theater, 700 Howard (at Third St.), 978-2787.

Very Special Money & Run Winter Season Holiday Special: An Impact Theatre holiday special directed by Jeremy Forbing. Through Dec. 22. La Val's Subterranean Theater, 1834 Euclid (at Hearst), Berkeley, 510-234-6046.

Yugen Presents: A series showcasing experimental and Asian-based performing artists. No regular schedule; check Web site for upcoming dates. Daily, $10-15, Noh Space, 2840 Mariposa (at Florida), 621-7978.

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