Flaming Sin: London's Grand Guignol. The most enticing aspect of Thrillpeddlers' latest Grand Guignol theater spectacle is the way it messes with our emotions. The first of the evening's entertainments, a recently rediscovered one-act by Noel Coward, is anything but a lightweight domestic farce. Set in the home of a wealthy, unhappily married woman, the narrative deals with her attempts to force her superficially dashing and upright husband to get in touch with his dark side. The work feels utterly contemporary for its unconventional views on marital relationships, drawn out by Eddie Muller's tight direction and nuanced performances from Alice Louise and Jonathan Ingbretson. Next on the bill is a macabre drama by Christopher Holland, adapted from a seminal French Grand Guignol play. Unraveling in a lunatic asylum, the story concerns an innocent young inmate's ghastly fate at the hands of three delusional old crones. With their lumpy bosoms and frazzled wigs, the titular hags are truly creepy. Powerful sound and lighting effects help to heighten the drama's slow-simmering build toward its inevitable gory conclusion. The emotional rollercoaster continues with a series of bite-sized plays and demented cabaret acts. Anyone left standing thereafter can stay on for a screening of Thrillpeddlers' fascinating Grand Guignol documentary, a special feature on the Tim BurtonSweeney Todd DVD. Through May 31 at the Hypnodrome, 575 10th St. (at Bryant), S.F. Tickets are $20-$34.50; call 377-4202 or visit www.thrillpeddlers.com. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed April 23.
7 Sins. Halfway through James Judd's entertaining 75-minute solo show at Theatre Rhinoceros' studio, it dawns on you: Who the hell is this guy and why am I laughing so hard? While autobiographical one-person shows are nothing new, it's one thing to keep an audience's attention when you're someone famous like Carrie Fisher (whose run at the Berkeley Rep just ended), and quite another when you're a nobody. Judd, the nobody in question here, gets the audience to root for him as he recounts his life's not-so-serious struggles, from his ill-fated attempt in the fifth grade to be honored for giving the best book report (he unwisely chooses My Search for Patty Hearst) to his stint as a stand-up comedian working in sleazy Las Vegas hotels. Along the way, he always manages to say something during his misadventures that, in retrospect, he knows he probably shouldn't have. When, for instance, a man sitting next to him on the ski lift boasts that his woman is waiting for him at the hotel, Judd, who is gay, retorts that his boyfriend is at home doing his taxes. "I'm going to get a blow job and a refund," he gloats. 7 Sins began years ago as a group show; Judd later adapted it for himself and kept the title, which is somewhat misleading. The deadly sins play, at most, a marginal role in his personal stories. The second half of the show wanders some and could be tightened, but this is a minor gripe. In the end, you'll still leave with a smile on your face. Through May 17 at Theatre Rhinoceros, 2926 16th St. (at South Van Ness), S.F. Tickets are $10; call 861-5079 or visit www.therhino.org. (Will Harper) Reviewed April 16.
The Trojan Women.Ellen McLaughlin originally penned her haunting adaptation of Euripides' famous antiwar play about the horrors facing the women of Troy after the fall of their city to the Greeks in the mid-1990s in response to the plight of refugees displaced by the Balkan conflict. Aurora Theatre's production, which is based on McLaughlin's rewrite of her play for Fordham University in 2003, aims to be more universal in its appeal. Set in what looks like a timeless, placeless wasteland occupied by a cluster of massive rusty square metal pipes, the play's message about the ravages of war might equally apply to contemporary conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, or Tibet. McLaughlin's play distinguishes itself from other antiwar dramas through its penetrating exploration of the desperation of the victimized characters. In a bold departure from Euripides, the chorus of Trojan women beats up the hated Spartan queen Helen in a fit of impotent rage. Profoundly moving performances from Aurora's cast further make Euripides' tale resonate across the millennia You wish only that the production team wouldn't downplay the drama's contemporary local setting. Knowing that the events unfold not in some ancient mythical city but right here in San Francisco right now may make the cruelties of war seem all the more immediate. Through May 11 at Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison (at Shattuck), Berkeley. Tickets are $40-$42; call 510-843-4822 or visit www.auroratheatre.org. (C.V.) Reviewed Apr. 30.
51 & Counting: A cabaret about working by Mary Ann Boyd. Fridays, Saturdays. Continues through May 10. Shotwell Studios, 3252A 19th St. (at Folsom), 289-2000.
BATS: Sunday Players: Each week Bay Area Theatresports players pit their improv work against all comers. Sundays, 8 p.m. $8. www.improv.org. Fort Mason, Bldg. B (Marina & Buchanan), 474-6776.
Best of PlayGround 12: A Festival of New Writers & New Plays: A selection of the best work. Starting May 8. Thursdays-Sundays. Continues through May 25. The Thick House, 1695 18th St. (at Arkansas), 401-8081.
The Better Half: The U.S. premiere of a lost Noel Coward play. Through May 21, 8 p.m. $20-$69. The Hypnodrome, 575 10th St. (at Bryant), 248-1900.