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Our critics weigh in on local theater

Dead Mother, or Shirley Not All in Vain. Like the ghost of an unpopular relative returning for a visit years after its demise, David Greenspan's surreal play is enjoying a belated — and totally transcendent — second coming at San Francisco's Traveling Jewish Theatre. Far from being "an angry play about a hateful mother," as The New York Times' powerful critic Frank Rich dismissively concluded 17 years ago during its only previous run, this contortionist comedy encompassing everything from Dante's Inferno to dentistry provides an engrossing workout for both the heart and mind. In some ways, there's so much going on in the play that it's easy to feel bewildered by it. We're treated to episodes of Marivaux-like domestic farce, two play-within-a-play scenes (one a re-enactment of a Greek myth, the other a staged reading along Dantean lines), and multiple monologues dealing with the likes of driving through Los Angeles and the evolution of the microbe. And that's to say nothing of the random appearance of a philosophizing sperm whale several times during the show. Yet a feeling of disorientation may be just what the playwright is aiming for. For those among us able to kick back and just enjoy the ride provided Tony Kelly's bouncy, perceptive direction and the creativity and clarity of Traveling Jewish Theatre and Thick Description's fearless cast, the playwright's searing central message about the problems of patriarchy burns through. Through Feb. 17 at Traveling Jewish Theatre, 470 Florida (at 17th St.), S.F. Tickets are $31-$34; call 522-0786 or visit (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed Jan. 30.

Savage Arts. What the hell is it with artists, especially the exotic French ones? They like to drink, smoke, have affairs, and paint naked women. That creates a dangerous scenario when an artist moves in next door to a sexually clueless housewife stuck darning socks. Set in New York State during Prohibition and loosely based on the true story of a Native American witchcraft trial, Savage Arts has playwright Sharon Eberhardt playing Margaret, a sheltered young wife with a strict moral code. Eberhardt also plays Margaret's sickly husband; the loose-moraled French artist; and his sultry wife in this one-woman show. Her performance paints a slow and sensual world of attraction and perceived salvation, but this grand seduction isn't earned. It feels more like a naive crush gone wrong. There is fertile ground here for a lustful battle of wills and morals, but Margaret is too quick to shed her clothes for lines like "Fabric is too hard to paint." Her character is fairly unsophisticated, and thus the audience sees the betrayals and twists long before she does, taking away much of the ending's punch. Eberhardt is trying to write a murder mystery tinged with Native American mysticism, but Savage Arts would work much better if it dug deeper into the sexual and intellectual blossoming of a young woman who has seen little of the world. Through Feb. 16 at the Marsh, 1062 Valencia (at 21st St.), S.F. Tickets are $15-$35; call 800-838-3006 or visit (Nathaniel Eaton) Reviewed Feb. 6.

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 (Molly Rhodes) Reviewed Jan. 2.

Slavs! Tony Kushner's quirky rumination on the political fate of Russia in the 1980s and 1990s could easily be seen as nothing more than a clever intellectual exercise. Yet the combination of our own heady political times and the snappy production by Custom Made Theatre Company makes the story about how a world power chooses and then lives with its future more than just frivolous banter. Is it better, as party faithful Smukov asks, to "not move until we know where we are going"? Or should we cast aside such measured, stultifying caution and, as the suddenly unblind Upgobkin proclaims, leap into the unknown? Kushner ponders these and many more questions, adding theatrical whimsy and plain old human greed into the mix to maintain our attention. Director Brian Katz keeps the 90-minute production moving swiftly, and Megan Briggs gives a standout performance as Katherina, the bored and feisty lesbian who guards the pickled brains of once-great leaders. The mostly good cast embraces Kushner's dense language with gusto, leaving us with the question of how people can decide what they want from their country when, as Upgobkin puts it, "not even the dead can see what is to come." Through Feb. 23 at the Custom Stage at Off Market, 965 Market (at Fifth St.), S.F. Tickets are $15-$25; call 651-4251 or visit (M.R.) Reviewed Feb. 6.

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