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Our critics weigh in on local theater

Beach Blanket Babylon: A North Beach perennial featuring crazy hats, media personality caricatures, a splash of romance, and little substance. $25-$65. Club Fugazi, 678 Green (at Powell), 421-4222.

Big City Improv: Actors take audience suggestions and create comedy from nothing. Fridays, 10 p.m., $15, www.bigcityimprov.com. Shelton Theater, 533 Sutter (at Powell), 433-1226, www.sheltontheater.com.

The Coast of Utopia: The Shotgun Players present Tom Stoppard's play. Through Jan. 23. The Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby (at MLK Jr.), Berkeley, 510-841-6500.

Dead Mother, or Shirley Not All in Vain: Thick Description presents a play about identity by New York playwright David Greenspan. Through Feb. 17. Traveling Jewish Theatre, 470 Florida (at Mariposa), 285-8282.

Elagabalus, Emperor of Rome: This (mostly) true story of the youth that became a Roman emperor is told with Grand Guignol horror and comedy. Through Feb. 2. Intersection for the Arts, 446 Valencia (at 15th St.), 626-3311, www.theintersection.org.

Henrietta English: Staged reading presented with Busybody and Missing Pieces. Fri., Jan. 18. Off-Market Theater, 965 Mission (at Fifth St.), 896-6477, www.offmarkettheater.com.

In Gabriel's Kitchen: A drama about an Italian-Canadian family by Salvatore Antonio. Through Feb. 17. New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness (at Market), 861-8972, www.nctcsf.org.

King Lear: Pangs Theater Ensemble presents Shakespeare's enduring tragedy. Through Jan. 26. Phoenix Theatre, 414 Mason (at Geary), Suite 601, 989-0023.

Little Women: Based on Louisa May Alcott's novel about family life and love. Jan. 19-Feb. 3. Julia Morgan Center for the Arts, 2640 College (at Derby), Berkeley, 510-845-8542, www.juliamorgan.org.

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.

Missing Pieces: A staged reading of a play set in a VA hospital day room, by Marilyn Flower. Presented by Playwrights' Center of San Francisco and Busybody. Fri., Jan. 18, 7:30 p.m., free-$10. 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. Call for specific date. Saturdays, 6 p.m., $95, www.incentivestointrigue.com. Queen Anne Hotel, 1590 Sutter (at Octavia), 441-2828.

Rapunzel: Astory about a couple and their desire to have a child and the harsh bargain they make with a witch who takes the child to an enchanted tower. Jan. 19-Feb. 10. Young Performers Theater, Bldg. C Fort Mason (Marina & Buchanan), 346-5550.

ReOrient 2008: The ReOrient Festival presents the best writing from or about the Middle East. Through Feb. 3. Magic Theatre, Fort Mason, Bldg. D, Marina & Buchanan, 441-8822, www.magictheatre.org.

Savage Arts: A solo performance piece based on the true story of an Indian witchcraft trial that took place in New York State in 1930. Jan. 18-Feb. 16. The Marsh, 1062 Valencia (at 22nd St.), 826-5750, www.themarsh.org.

Secret Garden: An opera by Marsha Norman and Lucy Simon, directed Jane Erwin Hammett. Jan. 18-20, $11-$46. Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theater, 700 Howard (at Third St.), 978-2787.

Shakespeare's Greatest Hits Concert: Based on the recently released CD. Sat., Jan. 19, 8 p.m. Climate Theater, 285 Ninth St. (at Folsom), 863-1076.

Shark Bites (a very nearly solo show): A comedy about one man's life by Jeffrey Hartgraves. Jan. 17-Feb. 9. Theatre Rhinoceros, 2926 16th St. (at South Van Ness), 861-5079, www.therhino.org.

Sol Niger: Keith Hennessy's work of contemporary circus and performance. Jan. 16-26. Project Artaud Theater, 450 Florida (at 17th St.), 626-4370, www.artaud.org.

Speed-the-Plow: Through Feb. 3, $12-$80. American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary (at Mason), 749-2228, www.act-sfbay.org.

Taking Over: Through Feb. 10, $13.50-$69. Berkeley Repertory's Thrust Stage, 2025 Addison (at Shattuck), Berkeley, 510-647-2949, www.berkeleyrep.org.

Third: Pulitzer Prize– and Tony Award–winning playwright Wendy Wasserstein's last play crackles with the wit, intelligence, and wryness that made her one the most prominent female playwrights of the last 20 years. Jan. 19-Feb. 10. Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro (at Mercy), Mountain View, 650-903-6000.

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