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Our critics weigh in on local theater

Coronado. Dennis Lehane is the current go-to guy for gritty drama soaked in family tragedy. He wrote books that were adapted for the screen for Ben Affleck's Gone Baby Gone and Clint Eastwood's Mystic River. In 2004, he joined the writing staff of The Wire, HBO's brilliant and critically lauded crime drama. As for his theater work, Lehane wastes no time getting down and dirty. Within the first five minutes of Coronado, we're drawn into a world of missing diamonds, bullets to the head, blackmail, and murder. On an absolutely stellar set (with SF Playhouse artistic director Bill English doing double duty as set designer and actor) depicting a rundown bar on the edge of a desert, a group of stories unwind and intertwine, linking each character to a heady world of adultery and deception. Stacy Ross is electric as a woman trying to forget her past ("There are worse crimes than murder") while simultaneously blackmailing and carrying on an affair with her therapist. Lehane's script and Susi Damilano's direction give this production a slick, sexy cinematic vibe but don't ignore the haunting undercurrent of transgression and regret. At its dark, twisted heart, Coronado is a reflection of the crossroads we encounter, the (sometimes disastrous) choices we make, and the regret we're forced to live with. This is heavy stuff, but this skillful production makes it all eminently pleasurable to watch. Through April 26 at SF Playhouse, 533 Sutter (at Mason), S.F. Tickets are $20-$65; call 677-9596 or visit www.sfplayhouse.org. (Nathaniel Eaton) Reviewed April 2.

Fences. August Wilson's Pulitzer-winning play gets a moving production from the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre. Alex Morris deftly captures the pride and the fury of Troy Maxson, a former Negro League baseball star now, in 1957 Pittsburgh, a garbageman fighting to raise his family the way he deems best. There are moments in the almost-three-hour production where there doesn't seem to be a whole lot happening on Robert Broadfoot's handsome set, such as when Troy is shooting the breeze and polishing off a flask with his old friend Bono (a charming Vernon D. Medearis). But Wilson makes good on all the small seeds he sows, and director Stanley E. Williams gets compelling performances from Elizabeth Carter as Troy's dedicated, hard-working wife, and Axel Avin Jr. as Troy's youngest son, Cory, a talented football player yearning to become his own man. By the end of the night you feel as if you have been on a deep, satisfying journey, as Troy and his family struggle to make the best lives they can. Through April 20 at Lorraine Hansberry Theatre, 620 Sutter (at Mason), S.F. Tickets are $18-$32; call 474-8800 or visit www.lhtsf.org. (Molly Rhodes) Reviewed April 9.

Mrs. Warren's Profession. Approaching the plays of George Bernard Shaw as if they were typical 19th-century drawing-room dramas is like tying a lead weight to your foot before jumping in the pool. Sure, your swimming or theatrical talents might eventually get you to the other side, but the journey won't be nearly as enjoyable as it could be. Alas, such is the case with Shotgun Players' production of Shaw's rumination on the ups and downs of the world's oldest profession. Aside from some nice half-doors, director Susannah Martin and set designer Steve Decker's faithful detailing of the nooks and crannies of the Warren summer home adds little to the drama, and a lot in the way of obstacles and cumbersome rotating pieces to hamper the action. Martin gets good work from her actors, who are mostly game and do their best to liven up the piece. Emily Jordan as Vivie Warren and Joseph O'Malley as her would-be lover Frank are particularly winsome, embracing Shaw's language and rhetoric with gusto. But ultimately the production, weighed down by its devotion to the drawing-room style the playwright himself was subverting, never lets Shaw's intellectual flights of fancy get off the theatrical ground. Through April 27 at the Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby (at Martin Luther King Jr.), Berkeley. Tickets are $17-$25; call 510-841-6500 or visit www.shotgunplayers.org. (M.R.) Reviewed April 2.

Strange Travel Suggestions. Jeff Greenwald has a mantra when embarking on one of his many treks to far-flung global destinations: "May all of your travels make a fool of you." In the return of this sublime 90-minute night of improvised storytelling, Oakland resident Greenwald, a best-selling travel writer, ponders the primal nature we take with us on journeys and the soulful adventures to be had when veering off a planned itinerary. His stories are different each night, and solely dependent on the spin of a beautiful wheel covered with hieroglyphics placed center stage. On the night I attended, the wheel stopped at "oracles," "meals of misfortune," and "magicians," and rip-roaring tales were told with Nepal, Iran, and Northern India as their backdrops. While Greenwald often finds himself in dangerous or awkward situations (such as trying to smuggle an endangered snow leopard to safety in Katmandu), he has a deep knowledge of local religions and customs, which keeps this from being a clichéd evening about bumbling tourists in strange lands. While indeed improvised, these stories are beautifully formed and truly riveting. The legendary and neurotic New York monologuist Spalding Gray always dreamed of moving to Northern California to become more of a wizened, worldly sage. If he had, he might have become the wonderful Jeff Greenwald. Through April 26 at the Marsh, 1062 Valencia (at 21st St.), S.F. Tickets are $15-$35; call 800-838-3006 or visit www.themarsh.org. (N.E.) Reviewed April 9.

Tings Dey Happen. Based on his experiences as a Fulbright Scholar studying oil politics in Nigeria (American's fifth-biggest oil supplier), solo performer Dan Hoyle drills deep beneath the surface of media hype and NGO cant to help us understand the forces at work behind the oil-rich country's escalating cycle of corruption and violence. On his journey backward and forward between Nigeria's oil capital, Port Harcourt, and the lawless hinterlands of the Niger Delta, Hoyle — with acute attention to physical detail (and an ear for pidgin) — embodies a soft-spoken, 23-year-old rebel sniper whose chief desire is to obtain a university degree; a warlord armed with four cellphones and a family photo album, like Marlon Brando in The Godfather; and a nerdy Japanese member of the Young Diplomats Club in Lagos working on a thesis about the Tanzanian cashew nut, among many others. Like Anna Deavere Smith, one of the most famous practitioners of this style of show, Hoyle takes a journalistic approach. But unlike Smith, whose slavish impersonation of the speech nuances of her interviewees seems more stenography than artistry, Hoyle filters his Nigerian experience through his vivid imagination, creating full-blooded characters that are as theatrical as they are real. Through April 19 at the Marsh, 1062 Valencia (at 21st St.), S.F. Tickets are $15-$22; call 826-5750 or visit www.themarsh.org. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed Jan. 10, 2007.

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 until the winner stands alone on the stage. Sundays, 8 p.m., $8, www.improv.org. Fort Mason, Bldg. B (Marina and Buchanan), 474-6776.

Beach Blanket Babylon: A North Beach perennial featuring crazy hats, media personality caricatures, a splash of romance, and little substance. Fridays, Saturdays, 7 & 10 p.m.; Wednesdays, Thursdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 1 & 4 p.m., $25-$65, www.beachblanketbabylon.com. Club Fugazi, 678 Green (at Powell), 421-4222.

The Better Half: The U.S. premiere of a lost Noel Coward play. Through May 3, 8 p.m., $20-$69. The Hypnodrome, 575 10th St. (at Bryant), 248-1900, www.hypnodrome.com.

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.

Butterfly Effect: An All-Star Gala Benefiting the Jeffrey Hartgraves Cancer Fund: Starring Bay Area talents Veronica Klaus, Matthew Martin, Connie Champagne, Leigh Crow, Trauma Flintstone, and others. Sun., April 20, 7:30 p.m. Theatre Rhinoceros, 2926 16th St. (at South Van Ness), 861-5079, www.therhino.org.

Defending the Caveman: The longest-running solo play in Broadway history explores the battle of the sexes. Wednesdays-Sundays. Continues through April 27. Marines Memorial Theater, 609 Sutter (at Mason), 771-6900, www.marinesmemorialtheatre.com.

Disney's High School Musical: The stage version of the popular film. Through April 27. Orpheum Theater, 1192 Market (at Eighth St.), 512-7770.

DIVAfest: Plays and performances by women artists. Continues through April 26. Exit Theatre, 156 Eddy (at Taylor), 673-3847, www.sffringe.org.

Last Call and The American Bar: Thursdays-Saturdays. Continues through April 26. Stage Werx, 533 Sutter (at Powell), www.stagewerx.org.

The Emperor's New Clothes: Active Arts Theatre for Young Audiences presents Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty's musical. Through April 27. Julia Morgan Center for the Arts, 2640 College (at Derby), Berkeley, 510-845-8542, www.juliamorgan.org.

hotshot: Terrence Beswick's drama about men and their obsessions: sex, love, and crystal meth. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m. Continues through April 26, $10-$15, www.guerrillarep.org. Mama Calizo's Voice Factory, 1519 Mission (at Van Ness), 690-9410, www.voicefactorysf.org.

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 (at Embarcadero).

Medea: Euripides' drama, directed by Phyllis Holliday and produced by RubberMatchSeriez. Fridays-Sundays. Continues through April 20. St. Boniface Church Theater, 133 Golden Gate (at Leavenworth).

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 murder mystery 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. One Saturday a month. Call for specific date. Saturdays, 6 p.m., $95, www.incentivestointrigue.com. Queen Anne Hotel, 1590 Sutter (at Octavia), 441-2828.

Point Break LIVE!: Stage adaptation of the Keanu Reeves and Patrick Swayze blockbuster. Fridays, Saturdays. Continues through May 1. Xenodrome, 1320 Potrero (at 25th St.), 285-9366, www.xenodrome.com.

Riches: Lee Blessing's drama about a marriage that goes wrong. Through April 27. Phoenix Theatre, 414 Mason (at Geary), Suite 601, 989-0023.

Shopping! The Musical: Songs and sketches about shopping. Daily, $23-$29, www.shoppingthemusical.com. Shelton Theater, 533 Sutter (at Powell), 433-1226, www.sheltontheater.com.

Teatro ZinZanni: A bewitching evening of European cabaret, cirque arts, theatrical spectacle, and original live music, all blended with a five-course gourmet dinner, set in the nightclub of your dreams, now in its eighth season in San Francisco. Current show is À La Folie, starring Liliane Montevecchi as Madame ZinZanni. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 6 p.m., $116-$140, 438-2668, www.zinzanni.org. Pier 29, Embarcadero (at Battery).

Thrill Me: The Leopold and Loeb Story: The story of the notorious "thrill killers." Wednesdays-Sundays. Continues through May 4. New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness (at Market), 861-8972, www.nctcsf.org.

Tony 'n' Tina's Wedding: Be a part of the reception at this interactive comedy. Thursdays-Saturdays, www.pier39shows.com. Theatre 39 at Pier 39, 2 Beach (at Embarcadero).

The Trojan Women: Euripides' classic antiwar comedy. Wednesdays-Sundays. Continues through May 11. Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison (at Shattuck), Berkeley, 510-843-4822, www.auroratheatre.org.

Twilight Zone: The Plays, Season V: Fridays-Sundays, 8 p.m. Continues through April 20, $15. Dark Room Theater, 2263 Mission (at 18th St.), 401-7987, www.darkroomsf.com.

Uncle Vanya: Anton Chekhov's play, produced by the Actors Ensemble of Berkeley. Starting April 18, Fridays, Saturdays, 8 p.m. Continues through May 17. Live Oak Theater, 1301 Shattuck (at Berryman), Berkeley, 510-704-8210.

Whistle Down the Wind: Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical about a stranger claiming to be Jesus Christ. Through April 20. Curran Theatre, 445 Geary (at Taylor), 551-2000.

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