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Our critics weigh in on local theater

Endgame. Humanity is at the center of Rob Melrose's new production of Samuel Beckett's sepulchral 1957 masterpiece. This is no small achievement when you consider that the play is, like pretty much all of Beckett's dramatic works, surreal and largely plotless. Taking place in a dilapidated room, it mostly revolves around the bickering relationship between a dyspeptic, blind, wheelchair-bound old man, and a younger man with a limp who behaves like his indentured servant. Drawing upon Bertolt Brecht's edict that "the artist's job is to either make the familiar strange or the strange familiar," Melrose's masterful mise-en-scene succeeds in its aim to make "the strange familiar." The sense of familiarity begins with Fred Kinney's descriptive set, a facsimile of a rundown room in a San Francisco Victorian. Thanks to the unmistakably local flavor of the scenic design, we instantly know that this version of the play is unfolding right under our noses. Deeply affecting performances from David Sinaiko, Avery Monsen, Paul Gerrior, and Maureen Coyne further help to demystify Beckett's abstract world. But while this intensely humanized, quasinaturalistic staging allows us to connect in a visceral way with the play, the heightened proximity comes at a price. We need to feel as alienated from the characters as they are from each other in order to allow Beckett's death rattle to shudder through our bones. Our strong sense of familiarity with the characters makes them too easy to read. Through March 23 at Traveling Jewish Theatre, 470 Florida (at 17th St.), S.F. Tickets are $15-$30; call 419-3584 or visit www.cuttingball.com. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed March 5.

Wakefield; or Hello Sophia. Central Works Theater Ensemble and playwright Brian Thorstenson bring out the best in each other in this elegant 70-minute production about how to reignite a marriage thought lost forever. The play picks up where Nathaniel Hawthorne's short story "Wakefield" left off, as a middle-aged man suddenly returns to his wife after just as suddenly walking out on her two decades before. As the couple, Julian López-Morillas and Jan Zvaifler deftly express the longing and confusion of their unexpected reunion, mining Thorstenson's deceptively simple text for the heartbreak that lies just beneath the surface of their halting or mundane words. The play sometimes gets stuck in their inability to communicate, a choice that is true to the mood of Hawthorne's original story, but ends up keeping us from fully engaging with these two lost souls. Yet we are pulled back into the play by moments of theatrical fantasy, where both husband and wife imagine what their lives could be in contrast to what they actually are. They're the kind of fantasies we all get stuck in, and the story of this couple learning how to let go of these what-if scenarios beautifully captures the struggle we all face to accept the flawed lives we have and love them all the same. Through March 23 at Berkeley City Club, 2315 Durant (at Ellsworth), Berkeley. Tickets are $14-$25; call 510-558-1381 or visit www.centralworks.org. (Molly Rhodes) Reviewed March 5.

25 Questions for a Jewish Mother: Judy Gold spins anecdotes about parenting in this solo comedy show. Continues through March 23, $29-$75. Marines Memorial Theater, 609 Sutter (at Mason), 771-6900, www.marinesmemorialtheatre.com.

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, www.beachblanketbabylon.com. Club Fugazi, 678 Green (at Powell), 421-4222.

Beard of Avon: A comedy about the "true" authorship of Shakespeare's literary canon. Fridays-Sundays. Continues through March 16. Diego Rivera Theater/CCSF, 50 Phelan (at Judson), 239-3100.

Blade to the Heat: Through March 16, 8 p.m., $15-$30. The Thick House, 1695 18th St. (at Arkansas), 401-8081.

Don Juan: Draws on both the Molière and the Pushkin renditions of the legend. Thursdays-Sundays. Continues through March 16. SFSU Campus/Little Theater, 1600 Holloway (at 19th Ave.) (Creative Arts Bldg.), 338-2467.

Four Breaths: Four short erotic works by Samuel Beckett, Anaïs Nin, Ian Walker, and Rick Burkhardt. Thursdays-Sundays. Continues through March 29. Phoenix Theatre, 414 Mason (at Geary), Suite 601, 989-0023.

Insignificant Others: An open run of L. Jay Kuo's musical, directed by George Quick, about five friends who move to San Francisco from the Midwest. Daily, www.isomusical.com. Theatre 39 at Pier 39, 2 Beach (Beach & Embarcadero).

June in a Box: A new play inspired by El Corrido de June Robles, with original music by Beth Custer. Thursdays-Sundays. Continues through March 31, $10-$25. Intersection for the Arts, 446 Valencia (at 15th St.), 626-3311, www.theintersection.org.

Luv: A comedy that takes place on a suspension bridge, where three friends battle existential woes. Continues through April 5. Actors Theatre San Francisco, 855 Bush (at Taylor), 345-1287.

Mimetic: Dharma, fate, and free will come in question at this comedy by Ripe Theatre. Through March 29. Exit Theatre, 156 Eddy (at Taylor), 673-3847, www.sffringe.org.

Monster in the Dark: Darkly humorous tale about an end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it flood. Thursdays-Sundays. Continues through March 23. CounterPULSE, 1310 Mission (at Ninth St.), 626-2060, www.counterpulse.org.

Orpheus in the Underworld: The story of Orpheus and his not-so-beloved wife Eurydice, as told by Pocket Opera. Saturdays, Sundays. Continues through March 15. Florence Gould Theater, 34th Ave. & Clement (at Palace of the Legion of Honor), 863-3330.

The Pandora Experiment: A "slightly creepy" show by award-winning magician and illusionist Christian Cagigal. Through April 5, $12-20. Exit Stage Left, 156 Eddy (at Taylor), 673-3847.

Pinocchio: Young actors perform the classic. Through March 16. Young Performers Theater, Fort Mason, Bldg. C (Marina & Buchanan), 346-5550.

Romeo and Juliet & Other Duets: William Shakespeare reinvented through song. Thursdays-Sundays. Continues through March 29. The Marsh, 1062 Valencia (at 22nd St.), 826-5750, www.themarsh.org.

Serve by Expiration: A comedy by Thunderbird Theatre Company. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m. Continues through March 15, $15-$20. Exit Theatre on Taylor, 277 Taylor (at Eddy), 673-3847.

Sorya! A Candid Dispute: Includes A Religious Dispute and a workshop Kyogen adaptation of Candide. March 12-15. Noh Space, 2840 Mariposa (at Florida), 621-7978.

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