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Our critics weigh in on local theater

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. (N.E.) Reviewed Dec. 12.

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. (Chloe Veltman) 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.

"Sweetie" Tanya: The Demon Barista of Valencia Street. Dan Wilson's Stephen Sondheim–inspired musical grew out of a desire to bring a female barista friend's outlandish real-life stories of on-the-job sexual harassment to life. Seeing his friend as a modern-day Sweeney Todd, Wilson spins her narratives into a ghoulish-hilarious tale about a world-weary thirtysomething by the name of Tanya with a short fuse for misplaced male urges. Life is tough enough when Tanya's difficult past causes her to flee to San Francisco. But it only gets tougher when her job at a seedy Mission District cafe sparks bloodthirsty consequences. In most respects, the show presents a vivacious departure from the source material. From its offbeat morphing of Sweeney Todd piemaker Mrs. Lovett into a certain well-known country music artist to its pat dismissal of the original's carnivorous conceit (Lovett: "Why not grind him up and serve him to your customers?" Tanya: "Nah. He'd make terrible coffee, and we don't have the equipment to make calzones."), Wilson's musical does more than simply send up Sondheim; it gleefully rejects the great American songwriter outright. Sweeney Todd might examine the grimy underbelly of society, but "Sweetie" Tanya dances a fandango on its insides. Through Jan. 26 at The Darkroom Theatre, 2263 Mission (at 19th St.), S.F. Tickets are $20; call 401-7987 or visit www.cassandrascall.com. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed Jan. 16.

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.

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