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Our critics weigh in on local theater

Argonautika. The emasculation of heroes and the lambasting of misplaced heroics are at the heart of writer and director Mary Zimmerman's thought-provoking though ultimately self-defeating stage adaptation of the Jason and the Argonauts legend. Zimmerman gleefully pokes fun at Jason (the actor who plays him, Jake Suffian, is forced to perform the entire show wearing one sandal) and satirizes the heroic style of epic poetry through the use of contemporary slang: "Who gives a fuck about the Fleece? Some stinkin' piece of wool!" Yet for all her attempts to subvert the testosterone in the Jason myth, it ends up taking over. The main problem is that the essentially "masculine" narrative, on its relentless drive toward its final goal, offers little room for tonal variety or a change of pace. The director tries to mitigate this issue by throwing myriad special effects and clever staging ideas at the production, from sea monsters made of silk sheets to flying puppet harpies to energetic, rap-style ensemble songs. But the "phallic" plot structure remains intractable and the hectic visual language become cloying after a while — not to mention predictable. As a result, Zimmerman's antiheroic core message about the futility of war loses much of its impact. Through Dec. 23 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2025 Addison (at Shattuck), Berkeley. Tickets are $33-$69; call 510-647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed Dec. 5.

Based on a Totally True Story. Halfway through New Conservatory Theatre's production about a young writer trying to navigate the temptation and disappointment of Hollywood, the protagonist exclaims, "I refuse to be a cliché!" Too bad he's stuck in such an overdone and tired plotline: naive scribe gets his small play optioned for a blockbuster movie, and while doing artistically degrading rewrites, ruins his love life and everything that really "matters." As the title suggests, this is an autobiographical story by New York playwright Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa (who wrote last year's sharp production of The Mystery Plays at S.F. Playhouse). In real life, Aguirre-Sacasa writes for Marvel Comics (Fantastic Four and Spider-Man) and pens M. Night Shyamalan–esque plays. The unique behind-the-scenes details of plotting comic books and the specifics of an overextended writer's daily life rise above the remaining clichéd material here. The troubled relationship between the father and son also works, but the overexuberant acting style and hackneyed dialogue tend to gloss over the emotional arc of the story, leaving us with what feels like a episode of a second-rate TV show. Through Dec. 30 at New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness (at Oak), S.F. Tickets are $22-$34; call 861-8972 or visit www.nctcsf.org. (Nathaniel Eaton) Reviewed Dec. 5.

The Crowd You're in With. Rebecca Gilman's new play begins in a festive spirit as a couple in their early 30s host a July 4 party in the backyard of their rented Chicago apartment. Like a buffalo wing that has been left on the barbecue for too long, the holiday atmosphere soon becomes carcinogenic. The main catalyst for discomfort is reproduction. Jasper and Melinda want to get pregnant but have so far had no luck. Their friends Windsong and Dan, seven months on the way to having their first child, are feeling smug. Landlords Tom and Karen, meanwhile, decided long ago not to become parents and have never looked back. The characters hash out the "to procreate or not to procreate" debate in Gilman's flimsy 80-minute drama to its bitter end until Jasper, in particular, is left doubting everything he thought he held most dear. Director Amy Glazer's fluid staging, Gilman's Seinfeldian knack for making fun of the tiny details of quotidian life, and the cast's casual approach make us believe we're watching reality onstage. Unfortunately, the sense of shared experience dissolves into cliché. From the music-infatuated man-child in Converse sneakers (whom Nick Hornby captured so vividly more than a decade ago in High Fidelity) to the pushy, thirtysomething female with a fast-ticking body clock, we've seen these types before. Through Dec. 22 at the Magic Theatre, Fort Mason Center (Marina and Buchanan), Building D, S.F. Tickets are $20-$45; call 441-8822 or visit www.magictheatre.org. (C.V.) Reviewed Nov. 28.

The Necessity of Hank. If you have yet to experience RIPE Theatre, you are missing one of the most theatrically adventurous companies in the area. The substance of this particular play, about the strained relationship between a mother and a son, unfortunately often gets lost in all of its flights of theatrical fancy. A bit with a cat, for instance, starts out with much promise, yet by the end fails to resonate among all the other detritus onstage, including leaves from a strong storm and chalk outlines of thoughts and feelings. What's more, only Noah Kelly, as the fun-loving dentist dad, has the quicksilver quality needed to keep the deceptively mundane lines fresh and intriguing. (It probably doesn't hurt that he and his own mother, Val, penned the story.) Yet there is something exciting about the Kellys' constant choice to eschew plodding, straightforward storytelling for an imaginative oddball journey, one just as likely to ponder profound themes of loss and self-discovery as it is to send up those themes with quirky humor. Even if this particular piece is more style than substance, that style is so inventive and charming that you hope this seven-year-old company has many more tricks up its sleeve. Through Dec. 15 at Exit Stage Left, 156 Eddy (at Mason), S.F. Tickets are $12-$20; call 673-3847 or visit www.ripetreats.com. (Molly Rhodes) Reviewed Dec. 5.

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