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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 the Magic Theatre, Fort Mason Center, Building D (Marina and Buchanan), Third Floor, S.F. Tickets are $25; call 626-4061 or visit www.goldenthread.org. (Molly Rhodes) Reviewed Jan. 16.

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. (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 www.act-sf.org. (Nathaniel Eaton) Reviewed Jan. 16.

Taking Over. Hip-hop theater artist Danny Hoch plays nine different characters in his provocative if overly simplistic new solo show concerning the effects of gentrification on urban communities — specifically the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. On the surface, the personalities and circumstances Hoch inhabits all seem very different. They include a multitasking, middle-aged white property developer, a foul-mouthed Dominican taxi dispatcher, and a black rap artist with a passion for Noam Chomsky. Hoch's eye for detail makes us believe that he's tackling the subject of gentrification from many different perspectives. But despite the range of characters he embodies during the course of the 90-minute show, he offers only one: the viewpoint of someone radically opposed to urban development, who believes that a community is defined solely by its long-term residents and that everyone else should stay away. You have only to look below the surface of the play to see what's really going on. While all of the "authentic" born-and-bred Williamsburg residents depicted by Hoch are likable — or at the very least worthy of empathy — the new arrivals are stupid, evil, or both. Through Feb. 24 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2025 Addison (at Shattuck), Berkeley. Tickets are $33-$69; call 510-647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed Jan. 23.

Territories. Set during the Crusades and based on much conjecture, Betty Shamieh's play tells the story of a Muslim woman who changed the course of history. Alia (Nora el Samahy), a beautiful yet crippled noblewoman, is forced to employ the strategic manipulation of language and sex in the face of the inaction of two influential men who command opposing armies. Shamieh's dialogue veers between classical ("Get me their dirty prophet's bones") and crude modernism ("Do you have the balls to invade Mecca?"), which confuses the play's tone. Samahy does an admirable job playing her pivotal role with a buoyant energy reminiscent of Kate from The Taming of the Shrew, but it isn't enough. There is a depth of dialogue and essential chemistry between characters that is missing for an audience to fully buy into this plot. The final image of the strong and animated Alia smothered in the confines of a burka is devastating, and perfectly captures Shamieh's overarching theme of an unremembered woman guiding historical events. Unfortunately, this exquisite moment only reminds us of what Territories has the potential to be but doesn't quite deliver. Through Feb. 10 at the Magic Theatre, Fort Mason Center, Building D (Marina and Buchanan), S.F. Tickets are $20-$45; call 441-8822 or visit www.magictheatre.org. (N.E.) Reviewed Jan. 23.

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