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Our critics weigh in on local theater

reOrient. What makes Golden Thread's collection of five short plays about the Middle East better than your average festival aimed at a Large Theme or Important Cause is the theatrical imagination with which the company approaches the various stories. In The Monologist Suffers for Her Monologue, rather than lecture us on the plight of Palestine, playwright Yussef El Guindi and actress Sara Razavi show with wit and insight the struggle of a nation that isn't treated as a nation. Actors Danielle Levin and Julien López-Morillas find a halting, touching connection in Naomi Wallace's Between This Breath and You, a play about a past tragedy that took one life as it gave another. Not all the plays in the nearly two-and-a-half-hour evening work so well: An ambitious and multifaceted staging of a Simin Behbehani poem by Golden Thread's artistic director Torange Yeghiazarian suffers from having so much going on that the power of the words gets lost. But as a whole, the festival does an admirable job confronting the Big, Intractable Issues that surround the Middle East and showing us the people caught inside. Through Feb. 3 at Magic Theatre, Fort Mason Building D, Third Floor, S.F. Tickets are $25; call 626-4061 or visit (Molly Rhodes) Reviewed Jan. 16.

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 a 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. 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 (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 (M.R.) Reviewed Jan. 2.

Speed-the-Plow. There's a growing collection of behind-the-scenes Hollywood plays involving coke-addled Tinseltown assholes stomping on good people in their single-minded quests to make celluloid drivel. Speed-the-Plow falls squarely into that category, but David Mamet's writing and Loretta Greco's direction elevates it from clichéd storytelling into a ferocious battle for integrity and career. Essentially a debate between soulful filmmaking versus schlock movie production, Plow pits two Hollywood producers and an idealistic secretary against each other in a battle that, in the end, is physically violent and soul-wrecking. Plow's ever-shifting power play of sex, greed and ideology, saturated with the constant question of artistic taste, ultimately gives us a night of viscerally thrilling theater. Through Feb. 3 at American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary (at Mason), S.F. Tickets are $17-$82; call 749-2228 or visit (Nathaniel Eaton) Reviewed Jan. 16.

"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. Conceiving of his friend as "a modern-day Sweeney Todd," Wilson spins her narratives into a ghoulishly hilarious tale about a world-weary thirtysomething by the name of Tanya with a short fuse for dealing with 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 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, 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 (C.V.) Reviewed Jan. 16.

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