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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.

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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