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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 SF 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.

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. Jan. 4-12, 2008, at Actors Theatre of San Francisco, 855 Bush (at Mason), S.F. Tickets are $20-$30; call 345-1287 or visit www.actorstheatresf.org. (C.V.) Reviewed Nov. 14.

Cirque du Soleil: KOOZA. The last few Cirque du Soleil touring shows (Dralion, Varekai, Corteo) were so slick and so mass-marketed to general audiences that the action under the blue and yellow tent had become ho-hum. The company had strayed from circus' roots of bona fide danger and mystery and become quite Disneyfied. Not so with KOOZA, easily its best since the deliciously dark Quidam premiered more than a decade ago. Directed by David Shiner (who upstaged Bill Irwin in the Tony Award–winning clown extravaganza Fool Moon), this production feels like a heart-pumping cocaine binge for thrill addicts. The Indian-themed band has no problem blasting it out like Metallica while Darth Maul jump-ropers run like hamsters inside the mammoth "death wheel." One misstep could lead to devastating injury in many of these acts. A high-wire performer did indeed slip the night I attended, and was left precariously hanging by one arm as a reminder of the risks being taken for our entertainment. There's a peeing dog, a unicycle contortion act, Vegas skull girls, and a brilliant pickpocket, as well as clowns who are genuinely funny. And while this show is darker (one sinister character enters covered in crawling sewer rats), it is still beautifully grounded in the dreams — and nightmares — of a child. Through Jan. 20 behind AT&T Park, 24 Willie Mays Plaza (at Third & King sts.), S.F. Tickets are $38.50-$90; call 800-678-5440 or visit www.cirquedusoleil.com. (N.E.) Reviewed Dec. 12.

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