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Our critics weigh in on local theater

7 Sins. Halfway through James Judd's entertaining 75-minute solo show, 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. 7 Sins began years ago as a group show; Judd later adapted it for himself and kept the title, which is somewhat misleading. Through June 21 at the Exit Theatre, 156 Eddy (at Taylor), S.F. Tickets are $20; call 931-1094 or visit www.theatrebayarea.org. (Will Harper) Reviewed April 16.

Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage. Ten centuries' worth of academic study and stultifying school assignments have managed to turn Scandinavia's premier sex symbol, Beowulf, into a yawning bore. Now, in an act of theatrical heroism bold enough to rival the warrior's fight with the fearsome monsters depicted in the 11th-century manuscript of his tale, the ever-inventive theater company Banana Bag and Bodice, in collaboration with Berkeley's Shotgun Players, has managed to wrestle the legend's mangled reputation from the ravenous jaws of scholarship. Banana Bag and Bodice isn't the first company to have grasped rock music as the ideal metaphor for capturing Beowulf's unruly soul onstage. But writer and actor Jason Craig's gut-gripping new rock opera rages with an anarchic energy reminiscent of the most ardent anthems by Queen or Siouxsie Sioux. Yet despite restoring Beowulf to his rightful throne as pop icon extraordinaire, the genius of this inventively directed production lies in acknowledging a puzzling paradox that threatens to dampen the show's fiery rebelliousness: that Beowulf wouldn't be the literary king he is today if scholars hadn't given him his crown. Through June 22 at the Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby (at Martin Luther King Jr. Way), Berkeley. Tickets are pay what you can–$25; call 510-841-6500 or visit www.shotgunplayers.org. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed June 4.

Franz Kafka's Love Life, Letters, and Hallucinations in Short Scenes with Live Actors. The long title essentially sums up the plot structure of this meticulously detailed biography of the famous writer's tumultuous love life and his seemingly pained relationship with his work. Playwright and visiting UC Berkeley scholar Mae Ziglin Meidav has been crafting this material for close to 20 years; even at a long two and a half hours, it's still only a distilled version. The repetitive conceit of many of the scenes can become tedious: Kafka becomes obsessed with a woman, seduces her, then loses interest and falls back into the arms of his true love — writing. At the center of this exhaustive production that tracks Kafka from his youthful attempts to woo his wet nurse to his early death from tuberculosis is the whirlwind performance of Carson Creecy. His tour-de-force manic and childlike portrayal energetically propels the show and illuminates how many of Kafka's romantic relationships affected his fiction, but it starts to feel one-noted in the end. Through June 29 at Berkeley City Club, 2315 Durant (at Ellsworth), Berkeley. Tickets are $16-$34; call 800-838-3006 or visit www.brookside-art.org.(Nathaniel Eaton) Reviewed June 11.

ShortLived. PianoFight Productions encourages audience members to brown-bag their own booze; the crew even throws a couple of Budweisers and miniature whiskey bottles into the crowd right before the lights go down. But you don't have to be drunk, or even buzzed, to have a rip-roaring good time. ShortLived is a three-month competition of original short plays where the audience votes which ones make it to the next round. The night I attended, five of the eight plays (each under 10 minutes) were very funny and the other three quite gripping. Most were sustained short bursts of bizarre hilarity, such as a wedding involving ninja costumes and antidepressants, and a man trying unsuccessfully to use a coupon at a supermarket. Artistic directors Rob Ready and Dan Williams (both stars in their own right) lead an acting company that is irreverent, skilled, and clearly loves to have a good time. Through June 28 at Off-Market Theater, 965 Mission (at Fifth St.), S.F. Tickets are $15-$20; call 820-1656 or visit www.pianofight.com. (N.E.) Reviewed May 21.

Squeeze Box. What could have been a simple, sweet tale about a woman finding herself gets a jolt of saltiness in Anne Randolph's hands. Or, really, it's her face, with her large eyes and incredibly expressive tongue that can grab you out of your lulled state of deep liberal sympathy at the plight of the mentally ill women she worked with in Los Angeles and instead thrust you into a world where she can be just as desperate and dirty as the women she serves. Randolph isn't afraid to skewer anyone in her one-woman show – her sexual exploits with her boyfriend get a particularly detailed and not always flattering working over. Yet this choice actually makes her moments of insight into herself and others resonate all the more. Randolph isn't out to get you to congratulate her for taking on noble causes, but to see that she – like all of us – is simply struggling to cling to the faith we all need to find those small, incredible moments of happiness in our own lives. Through June 29 at the Marsh, 1062 Valencia (at 22nd St.), S.F. Tickets are $15-$35; call 826-5750 or visit www.themarsh.org. (Molly Rhodes) Reviewed June 4.

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