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Our critics weigh in on local theater

Abraham Lincoln's Big Gay Dance Party. The core conceit of Aaron Loeb's ambitious, hilarious, and dramaturgically hairy comedy is that the audience gets to vote on which order to watch three different perspectives on the same events. At the end, the audience also decides whether an Illinois grade school teacher hauled into court for besmirching Abraham Lincoln's reputation with an unconventional Christmas pageant outing him as gay is guilty of the crime of polluting young minds. Because the chance-laden format means no one act necessarily precedes another, each segment is riddled with exposition. Nevertheless, Loeb generally pulls off his stunt with aplomb. In the Mel Brooks–like prologue, the production's seven actors — all dressed in the statutory Lincoln drag of stovepipe hat, black overcoat, and beard — embody a bunch of fourth-graders acting out their R-rated Christmas pageant. Then they ask the audience from which vantage point they'd like to watch the events unfold first, repeating the question for the remaining two options later on. The three choices include a tale of political intrigue told from the perspective of a moderate black female Republican senator (an uptight Velina Brown); a flamboyant love story told from the perspective of a New York journalist (a nuanced Mark Anderson Phillips); and a dramatic morality tale told from the perspective of a homophobic congressman (a cartoonish yet empathetic Joe Kady). Part pop-culture–infused political satire, part kitsch romance, and part high-kicking surrealist "happening," the play teaches us to take nothing at face value, be it a president's sexual orientation or every American's right to vote. Through Jan. 17 at SF Playhouse, 533 Sutter (at Powell), S.F. Tickets are $40; call 677-9596 or visit www.sfplayhouse.org. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed Dec. 24.

The Arabian Nights. Mary Zimmerman's theatrical retelling of narratives from the ancient Middle Eastern story cycle also popularly known as The Thousand and One Nights is all about the power of riveting stories to bring the hidden to light and resuscitate long-dormant truths in society. Concealment is a running theme throughout. It's there in the main plot concerning the ruthless King Shahryar, who, in revenge at having caught his wife in the arms of another man, vows to murder every virgin in the land. But the wily Scheherezade manages to staunch his bloodlust by telling him a series of incredible stories that distract him from killing her. Eventually, Scheherezade helps the king rediscover his buried compassion. With the help of dozens of brightly colored Persian rugs, a canopy of hanging lanterns, and 15 versatile ensemble performers who match vivid characterizations with flamboyant musical, dancing, improvisational comedy, and storytelling skills, Zimmerman creates a multilayered world. This visually and intellectually captivating production reveals a deep connection between a civilization and its heritage, no matter how buried beneath the sands of war-torn time that cultural legacy might be. However, as universal as Zimmerman's approach to her material appears on the surface, its political subtext, concerning the imminent destruction of the Middle East, feels passé. Through Jan. 18 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2025 Addison (at Shattuck), Berkeley. Tickets are $13.50-$71; call 510-647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed Dec. 10.

No Parole. If Pedro Almodóvar ever did a one-man show, it would probably be something like this. No Parole is part self-revelation and part telenovela, telling the outrageous story of Carlo D'Amore's childhood in Peru, immigration to America, and development as a con artist under the eye of his cheerfully unscrupulous mother. D'Amore manically careens between continents and decades, and if he does so with more verve than precision, he still manages to create a generous, vividly imagined world of grand larceny and very poor parenting. The show's best moments occur during the small sequences involving well-drawn minor characters, such as a hilarious bit in which he portrays a volunteer at a gay men's health clinic. He's a little less successful in tracing the broader strokes of his long and complicated relationship with his mother. As a result, the show doesn't quite earn its climactic emotional payoff, with D'Amore's final attempt to connect emotionally with his audience proving a little too trite to be satisfying. On balance, though, No Parole is a fine showcase for a good showman, and the stories he tells will make you wonder why you ever complained about your own weird and horrible childhood. Through Jan. 25 at the Marsh, 1062 Valencia (at 22nd St.), S.F. $15-$50; 826-5750 or www.themarsh.org. (Chris Jensen) Reviewed Dec. 3.

The W. Kamau Bell Curve. After the election of Barack Obama, what could an African-American comedian with a gift for uncovering the nuances of race possibly have to say in our obviously post-race society? Well, it turns out W. Kamau Bell has plenty to say in his latest one-man show. In his laid-back, conversational style, he deftly deconstructs the ponytail Michelle Obama sported when she voted on Election Day; how the world would be a better place if the government would curb anonymous Internet postings with the Say It to My Face Act; and the racism inherent in that hipster staple, superskinny jeans. Not all his musings and observations hit the mark. An extended riff on how John McCain is evil not only seems like an easy target but also already old news in what is otherwise a very current and thought-provoking show. Bell has no brilliant solutions to share with us about how we can fix race relations for good, but that's one of his main points. For all the power of electing the country's first black president, there are still some racial issues — a lot of racial issues — where there can be no real meeting in the middle. This show encapsulates beautifully how far we all have come, and how far we've yet to go. Through Feb. 28 at SF Playhouse, 533 Sutter (at Powell), S.F. Tickets are $25 (2 for 1 if you bring a friend of a different race); 263-0830 or www.climatetheater.com. (Molly Rhodes) Reviewed Nov. 19.

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