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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.

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.

Mrs. Bob Cratchit's Wild Christmas Binge. Reviewed this week.

Also Playing

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. Sundays, 8 p.m., $8, www.improv.org. Fort Mason, Bldg. B (Marina & Buchanan), 474-6776.

Beach Blanket Babylon: A North Beach perennial. $25-$65. Club Fugazi, 678 Green (at Powell), 421-4222.

Big City Improv: Fridays, 10 p.m., $15, www.bigcityimprov.com. Shelton Theater, 533 Sutter (at Powell), 433-1226, www.sheltontheater.com.

A Christmas Carol: ACT's annual celebration of Dickens's timeless holiday tale. Through Dec. 23. American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary (at Mason), 749-2228, www.act-sfbay.org.

Christmas Crap-Array: Adult cabaret of clever and irreverent holiday offerings. Dec. 20-22. Exit Theatre, 156 Eddy (at Taylor), 673-3847, www.sffringe.org.

Completely Hollywood (abridged): Through Jan. 6, 2008, 8 p.m., $45-$60. Marines Memorial Theater, 609 Sutter (at Mason), 771-6900, www.marinesmemorialtheatre.com.

Ear Candy: Radio in the Flesh: Through Dec. 22, 8 p.m., $15. Dark Room Theater, 2263 Mission (at 18th St.), 401-7987, www.darkroomsf.com.

The Hard Nut: Mark Morris' reimagining of The Nutcracker, set in the 1970s with dancing Barbie dolls, go-go boots, G.I. Joe soldiers, and leaping snowflakes. Through Dec. 23. UC Berkeley, Zellerbach Hall, Bancroft & Telegraph, Berkeley, 510-642-9988.

Jackie Beat: Give 'Til It Hurts: Annual holiday show by drag superstar Jackie Beat. Dec. 20-22, 8 p.m., $30-$32.50. Empire Plush Room, York Hotel, 940 Sutter (at Hyde), 885-2800, www.theempireplushroom.com.

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.

Kung Pao Kosher Comedy: Jewish comedy on Christmas in a Chinese restaurant with Shelley Berman, Scott Blakeman, Esther Paik Goodhart, and Lisa Geduldig. Dec. 20-25. New Asia Restaurant, 772 Pacific (at Grant), 522-3737.

Love, Chaos & Dinner: A blend of European cabaret, circus arts, and original music with a five-course gourmet dinner. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 6 p.m.; Sundays, 5 p.m., $99-$125, love.zinzanni.org. Pier 29, Embarcadero (at Battery), 273-1620.

Magic Holiday: A kids' show featuring two magicians and a juggler by David Hirata and friends. Through Dec. 30. The Marsh, 1062 Valencia (at 22nd St.), 826-5750, www.themarsh.org.

Monday Night Improv Jam: Mondays, 8 p.m. Continues through Dec. 31, $5, jam@cafearts.com. Off-Market Theater, 965 Mission (at Fifth St.), 896-6477, www.offmarkettheater.com.

Monday Night Marsh: Each week a different lineup of musicians, actors, performance artists, and others takes the stage. Mondays, $7. The Marsh, 1062 Valencia (at 22nd St.), 826-5750, www.themarsh.org.

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. Call for specific date. Saturdays, 6 p.m., $95, www.incentivestointrigue.com. Queen Anne Hotel, 1590 Sutter (at Octavia), 441-2828.

Oy Vey in a Manger: Including such wholesome favorites as "God Bless Ye Femmy Lesbians," "A Lay in a Manger," and "Soylent Night," as well as a heartwarming first-person account of the birth of Jesus. Sat., Dec. 22. Herbst Theatre, 401 Van Ness (at Grove), 392-4400.

The SantaLand Diaries and Season's Greetings: Dec. 19-30, 8 p.m., $25, www.cafearts.com. Eureka Theatre, 215 Jackson (at Front), 788-7469, www.eurekatheatre.org.

Shaker Chair: Shotgun Players' drama about environmental activism, written by Adam Bock. Through Jan. 13, 2008. The Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby (at MLK Jr.), Berkeley, 510-841-6500.

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

Siddhartha, The Bright Path: The story of Prince Siddhartha's journey to become the Buddha, told in parallel with that of a modern-day San Francisco girl. Through Jan. 6, 2008. The Marsh, 1062 Valencia (at 22nd St.), 826-5750, www.themarsh.org.

Songs to Offend Almost Everyone: A cabaret designed to offend, written by Sharon McNight. Through Dec. 30. New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness (at Market), 861-8972, www.nctcsf.org.

Teatro ZinZanni: A bewitching evening of European cabaret, cirque arts, theatrical spectacle, and original live music, all blended with a five-course gourmet dinner. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 6 p.m., $116-$140, 438-2668, www.zinzanni.org. Pier 29, Embarcadero (at Battery), 273-1620.

This Wonderful Life: Holiday stage adaptation of the perennially popular holiday film It's a Wonderful Life. Through Dec. 23. San Jose Repertory Theatre, 101 Paseo de San Antonio (at South Third St.), San Jose, 408-367-7255, www.sanjoserep.com.

Twelfth Night: Shakespeare's quintessential celebration of romance in all its enchanting permutations gets a song-filled reimagining set in the City by the Bay circa 1969. Through Dec. 23. Lucie Stern Theater, 1305 Middlefield (at Embarcadero), Palo Alto, 650-903-6000.

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.

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