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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 Jan. 12 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.

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 and King sts.), S.F. Tickets are $38.50-$90; call 800-678-5440 or visit www.cirquedusoleil.com. (Nathaniel Eaton) Reviewed Dec. 12.

Mrs. Bob Cratchit's Wild Christmas Binge. Christopher Durang's inane yet witty spoof on Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol might look at the very outset like a faithful retelling of the Victorian novelist's yuletide favorite. But things quickly derail. Instead of focusing on Ebenezer Scrooge's heart-warming journey from sourpuss to sweetheart, Durang turns his attention to Cratchit's wife, a hard-bitten protofeminist whose idea of a fun way to spend the holiday season (as Durang, not Dickens, would have it) is getting drunk alone in a bar before throwing herself off a nearby bridge. From the random appearances of characters from other Dickens novels such as Oliver Twist and The Old Curiosity Shop to the helium-filled song lyrics ("Be happy and perky, you're gonna eat turkey/Be snippy and snappy, 'cause Christmas is happy," etc.) Durang makes an eggnog shake out of Dickens' fable. SF Playhouse's cast and production team appear to relish every sip. Under Joy Carlin's bold but punctilious direction, the actors gleefully stamp up and down on set designer Kim A. Tolman's massive three-dimensional reconstructions of dog-eared hardback books, making a strong statement about the play's irreverent approach to so-called "classics." Scenes like the one in which Bob Cratchit and his children unwittingly torture the carol-hating Scrooge with their painful rendition of "Silent Night" performed at an insufferably slow pace hilariously send up hackneyed Christmas traditions. Ironically, the annual ritual of performing A Christmas Carol has to be among the most hackneyed of all. Through Jan. 12 at SF Playhouse, 533 Sutter (at Powell), S.F. Tickets are $38; call 677-9596 or visit www.sfplayhouse.org. (C.V.) Reviewed Dec. 19.

The Shaker Chair. Shotgun Players and Encore Theatre Company's stylishly minimalist coproduction of an insubstantial activism play by Canadian dramatist Adam Bock tells the story of a 63-year-old woman's journey from complacency to action in the face of an environmental disaster (a sewage spill at a nearby pig farm). The drama takes as its central symbol an austere piece of furniture: a chair designed by the Shakers, a puritanical sect best known for hard work, cleanliness, and no-nonsense approach to product design. The simple, high-backed chair occupies center stage in director Tracy Ward's sparsely designed production, symbolizing Bock's exploration of the tension between passivity and activity. Yet the drama fails to exploit the fascinating paradox embodied by the chair to the full. Despite the vagueness of the activist message, the garbled histrionics of the plot, and the flimsy characters, you get a hint that there may be a play of real substance dying to burst out of the confines of its 65-minute cage. Through Jan. 27 at the Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby (at Martin Luther King Jr. Way), Berkeley. Tickets are $20-$30; call 510-841-6500 or visit www.shotgunplayers.org. (C.V.) Reviewed Jan. 2.

Shopping! The Musical. The world is made up of two kinds of people — those who like musical revues and those who really, really don't. Writer and director Morris Bobrow's original compilation of song and skits is unlikely to convert anyone, but its 80 minutes are filled with plenty of amusing harmonized insights into everyone's favorite pastime. Who hasn't gritted their teeth at the quasi-ethnic knickknacks at street fairs? And, yeah, what exactly are handling fees? The evening could do with more variety of musical and performance styles; it falls back too often on the softly building show tune and the big-eyed, winking delivery. But as they enter the third year of their run in March, Bobrow and his cast and crew have honed an enjoyable formula that keeps you smiling — if not always singing — along. Ongoing at the Shelton Theater, 533 Sutter (at Powell), S.F. Tickets are $27-$29; call 392-8860 or visit www. shoppingthemusical.com. (Molly Rhodes) Reviewed Jan. 2.

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