Also Playing: Act a Lady, Evil Hamlet, Thom Pain

Our critics weigh in on local theater

Act a Lady. Act a Lady ought to be a great time. Set in the Midwest in 1927, it's a comedy that considers what happens when small-town menfolk begin impersonating womenfolk at the local playhouse. In the show's Bay Area premiere at NCTC, the actors work admirably, sometimes even successfully, to make dramatic sense of the material — in particular, Glenn Kiser's drag act is worthy of a far better play. But the performers can only do so much with a preachy, bizarrely undeveloped script. (I say "bizarrely" because the play made its debut at Louisville's vaunted Humana Festival and has since been produced elsewhere to some acclaim, so you'd think we'd be dealing with a relatively polished product here.) Playwright Jordan Harrison tries to create a self-serious backstage comedy about Midwestern men who don dresses and learn grand new truths about gender identity. But instead of letting his characters transform gradually as we watch, he simply alternates between backstage and onstage action, never giving us a clear sense of how one informs the other. The result feels like two totally separate plays competing for attention, with the drag scenes providing just enough witty dialogue to make you wonder how the whole thing went so wrong. Through April 26 at New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness (at Oak), S.F. $22-$34; 861-8972 or www.nctcsf.org. (Chris Jensen) Reviewed April 8.

Evil Hamlet. The title suggests that adapter Jim Strope has made some radical shift in William Shakespeare's masterpiece, yet the changes he added — editing down the text and setting it in a drug-and-drink–infested 1960s – do not an intriguing new adaptation make. This shortened version of the Hamlet we all know goes neither far enough in challenging the work, nor deep enough into the heart of the characters to bring something fresh or exciting out of the play. There are some nice choices that are different than most versions, like an Ophelia and Gertrude who give as good as they get and have fabulous outfits to boot. But the choice to have Hamlet come across as if he regularly gets into weekend brawls is at odds with a character so trapped in inaction. What's more, each actor has chosen one note to cling to throughout the play – Hamlet's rage, Ophelia's impatience, Gertrude's indifference – so there is not enough going on onstage to sustain the two-and-a-half-hour show. There is much rich text to mine in Hamlet, but this attempt only tickles the surface of the deeper story it holds. Through April 25 at Stage Werx Theatre, 533 Sutter (at Powell ), S.F. $20; 412-3989 or www.catchynametheatre.org. (Molly Rhodes) Reviewed April 8.

Thom Pain (based on nothing). This play, as its subtitle suggests, is a one-man Beckettlike riff about "nothing," written by the incomparable Will Eno. The script was a finalist for the 2005 Pulitzer Prize, and this production, directed by Marissa Wolf, is solidly one of the best pieces of theater I've ever witnessed. So much so, it leaves me speechless. That said, let me first riff some honest, yet terribly clichéd, adjectives: mind-blowing, confronting, difficult, heady, hilarious. If this sounds like hyperbole, let me then quote from Charles Isherwood's review of the Off-Broadway production from The New York Times: "astonishing ... audacious ... grabs us by the throat ... a small masterpiece." So really, what is this show about nothing really about? A young man (the thrilling Jonathan Bock) stands alone on a blank stage. He delivers, in a measured and controlled Rod Serling–esque tone, a stream-of-consciousness monologue about the horror and beauty of being alive. It's menacingly funny. Bock makes serious eye contact with the audience, breaking down the fourth wall and asking questions. Don't worry, you don't have to answer — they're rhetorical, aren't they? The guy seated to my right captured it best: "This show has all the emotion in that moment before a first kiss ... or a fist fight." It's brilliant. Through April 19 at the Cutting Ball Theater at the Exit, 277 Taylor (at Ellis), S.F. $15-$30; 800-838-3006 or www.cuttingball.com. (Nathaniel Eaton) Reviewed March 25.

Act a Lady: Gender bending in a small, Prohibition-era town. Wednesdays-Sundays. Continues through April 26. New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness (at Market), 861-8972, www.nctcsf.org.

American Hwangap: Lloyd Suh's drama about a Korean immigrant reuniting with his family. Thursdays-Sundays. Continues through May 3. Magic Theatre, Fort Mason, Bldg. D, Marina & Buchanan, 441-8822, www.magictheatre.org.

An Intimate Evening with Del Shores: The playwright shares his tales. Fri., April 17, 8 p.m. Theatre Rhinoceros, 2926 16th St. (at South Van Ness), 861-5079, www.therhino.org.

Audacious Artefacts: Parisian Grand Guignol: Original Grand Guignol. Through May 2, $15-$30. The Hypnodrome, 575 10th St. (at Bryant), 377-4202, www.thrillpeddlers.com.

Baptized to the Bone: A comedy by Dave Johnson about a theater producer scrambling for money. Thursdays-Sundays. Continues through May 3. New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness (at Market), 861-8972, www.nctcsf.org.

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, 7 p.m., $5-$8, www.improv.org. Bayfront Theater, 16 Marina (at Laguna), 474-6776, www.improv.org/shows/bayfront.htm.

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