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Our critics weigh in on local theater

Candide, or Optimism. Combining an 18th-century French satire with a traditional Japanese theatrical form may seem like a gimmick just waiting to fail. But in Theatre of Yugen's new Kyogen-style adaptation of Voltaire's Candide, form and content inform each other in fascinating ways. Kyogen is a centuries-old style of Japanese comedy, developed as a companion to the much more somber, formal Noh dramas. It is characterized by an extremely stylized presentation that, when done effectively, elevates comedy to the level of ritual. It's an ingenious way of presenting Voltaire's work, since the elaborate choreography and exaggerated line delivery complement the heightened reality of his wide-ranging, none-too-subtle satire. Audiences with no prior exposure to Kyogen may find the first few minutes a little jarring as they adjust to the deliberate rhythms of the dialogue. But those same rhythms soon become almost entrancing, and anyone with an eye for theatrical movement will appreciate the precision and inventiveness directors Jubilith Moore and Yukio Ishida bring to the stage. The production loses a bit of momentum in the second act, but the uniformly stellar cast helps maintain interest even when the story lags. This Candide is an unexpected thrill. Through May 23 at NOHspace, 2840 Mariposa (at Florida), S.F. $13-$25; 621-7978 or (Chris Jensen) reviewed May 13.

The In-Betweens. Dark Porch Theatre was formed as a dance-and-movement–based company in Portland, Oregon, and then moved to the Bay Area to focus on acting. This explains the dramatic dual nature of this ambitious original script and production, set in 1885. The first act is a solidly performed Agatha Christie–esque whodunit. Steel tycoon and occult aficionado Silas Danforth (Stuart Bousel) invites guests (each bringing a secret agenda) to his mansion for a spiritual and completely fake séance led by the hilarious and bumbling Professor M (Christopher P. Kelly). Act two turns the production's setting and style completely on its head, transporting the characters to an in-between world that feels like a cross between Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream and Sartre's No Exit. The fabulous costumes (designed by Cara Samski) morph from Industrial Age finery to all-white linen and lace as the characters are reborn into their truest forms (one becomes Pan, another Narcissus). The second act is a musical with skilled singing and dancing and a haunting score composed and performed live by the talented Ryan Beebee with four other musicians. Writer and director Margery Fairchild spices the plot with references to theosophy, murder, women's rights, and even an actual Pandora's box. It's ambitious, perhaps too much so, but a lovely hybrid of dream, dance, and theater. Through May 30 at Exit Stage Left, 156 Eddy (at Taylor), S.F. $15-$20; 673-3847 or (Nathaniel Eaton) Reviewed May 13.

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, Bayfront Theater, 16 Marina (at Laguna), 474-6776,

Beach Blanket Babylon: A North Beach perennial featuring crazy hats, media personality caricatures, a splash of romance, and little substance. Now with Rod Blagojevich! Wednesdays, Thursdays, 8 p.m.; Fridays, Saturdays, 6:30 & 9:30 p.m.; Sundays, 2 & 5 p.m., $25-$80, Club Fugazi, 678 Green (at Powell), 421-4222.

Best of PlayGround 13: A Festival of Writers and New Plays: The best of the bunch. Thursdays-Sundays. Continues through May 31, The Thick House, 1695 18th St. (at Arkansas), 401-8081,

Big City Improv: Actors take audience suggestions and create comedy from nothing. Fridays, 10 p.m., $15-$20, Shelton Theater, 533 Sutter (at Powell), 882-9100,

Boleros for the Disenchanted: Jose Rivera's drama about love and scoundrels. Wednesdays-Sundays. Continues through May 31. American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary (at Mason), 749-2228,

Bright Young People: The Words and Music of Noel Coward: ACT's Young Conservatory takes the stage for songs and scenes by Noel Coward. Wednesdays-Sundays. Continues through May 23. Zeum Theater, 221 Fourth St. (at Howard), 820-3320,

Candide, or Optimism: Produced by Theatre of Yugen, adapted from Voltaire. Thursdays-Saturdays. Continues through May 23. Noh Space, 2840 Mariposa (at Florida), 621-7978,

The Angel and the Woodcutter: Performance by South Korean ensemble Cho-In Theatre. Thu., May 21, 8 p.m.; Sat., May 23, 6:30 p.m., $20-$25. Fort Mason, Cowell Theater, in Herbst Pavilion, Marina & Buchanan, 345-7553,

Dead Man's Cell Phone: Sarah Ruhl's comedy about technology. Tuesdays-Saturdays. Continues through June 13. SF Playhouse, 533 Sutter (at Powell), 677-9596,

East 14th Street: Don Reed's solo show about growing up in Oakland. Fridays-Sundays. Continues through June 14. The Marsh, 1062 Valencia (at 22nd St.), 826-5750,

Eccentrics of San Francisco's Barbary Coast ... A Magical Escapade: Historical magic show with Walt Anthony, David Miller, Brian Scott, and Ruth Fraser. Fridays, Saturdays, 8 p.m. Continues through June 27. $30, Chancellor Hotel, 433 Powell (at Post), 362-2004,

The Floating Light Bulb: Woody Allen's story about a Jewish family in Brooklyn. Thursdays-Sundays. Continues through May 24. Traveling Jewish Theatre, 470 Florida (at Mariposa), 292-1233,

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