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Our critics weigh in on local theater

The Busy World Is Hushed. It's immensely satisfying to witness a well-reasoned theological debate without heavy-handed hysterics. Keith Bunin's rigorous and enjoyable play is just that, an examination of the essence of Jesus and the reality of faith, plus homosexuality and the family itself. Episcopal minister Hannah (Lindsey Murray), who believes the Bible "is a self-contradictory, haphazardly edited compilation," is developing a book examining a newly unearthed early gospel. She hires Brandt (William Giammona), a talented but wounded young gay man to ghostwrite it for her. The trinity is rounded out when Hannah's charismatic and lost son returns home and falls for Brandt. Given this setup, it's a relief that the play avoids the obvious conflict between homosexuality and the church. Bunin's thoughtful yet wordy script instead concerns characters wanting to see others clearly and without prejudice: a minister searching for the undistilled Jesus, a son wanting to get to know a long-gone father, and a writer wanting to see himself and his desires without obstruction. The performances are charismatic and grounded, and the debates are well-constructed and evenhanded. Altogether, this makes for a great night of theater. Through May 1 at New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness (at Market), S.F. $24- $36; 861-8972 or www.nctcsf.org. (Nathaniel Eaton) Reviewed April 20.

Twelfth Night. It's a curious choice to paint one of Shakespeare's bawdiest comedies with the moody grandeur of a 1940s film noir, but one that proves eminently likable. Marcus Shelby's original jazz score brings a torchy, swiveling air to the 1940s San Francisco backdrop, and the stellar lead and supporting cast were able to turn the few flubs into an all-out zoot suit riot. Rebecca Frank shines as Olivia, especially in her slinky aloofness and her excitable wooing of Viola (Renee Wilson), a woman disguised as a boy. Malvolio's (Michael Kelly) tight-lipped sense of entitlement is savory, and the mischievous eavesdropping scene with Toby Belch (J. Darryl Williams), Andrew Aguecheek (Martin Grizzell), and Fabian (Chris Dewey) pretending to be moving portraits was a hilarious re-envisioning. A few staging misdemeanors took the oomph out of the romance between Orsino (Matt Jones) and Viola, since almost all of their scenes took place in a corner offstage and usually facing away from the audience, a grievance acutely felt when Viola turned her back to us during her beautifully soulful serenade. Barring that, it's apt to say that the story's climax, Olivia's delight at the "discovery" of not one but two husbands, also applies to the play itself: "Most wonderful!" Through May 1 at the African American Art and Culture Complex, 762 Fulton (at Webster), S.F. $15-$35; 800-838-3006 or www.african-americanshakes.org. (Anna Pulley) Reviewed April 20.

Beach Blanket Babylon: Steve Silver's musical revue spoofs pop culture with extravagant costumes. Wednesdays-Sundays. $25-$130. Club Fugazi, 678 Green (at Powell), 421-4222.

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

Bullets & Booze: Bar crawl with theatrical vignettes. Wed., April 27, 7 p.m. $20-$35. Intersection 5M, 925 Mission (at Fifth St.), 626-2787.

The Business: A Comedy Show: Wednesdays, 8 p.m. $5. Dark Room Theater, 2263 Mission (at 18th St.), 401-7987.

Caliente: Teatro ZinZanni production starring El Vez. A sister and brother lead a rebellion in an attempt to live out their dreams in show business. Through June 19. $91-$186. Teatro ZinZanni, Piers 27 and 29 (Embarcadero and Battery), 438-2668.

"Free Fridays! Improv Show": Late-night improv show. Fridays, 10:30 p.m. Continues through June 24. free. Alcove Theater, 414 Mason (at Derby).

Geezer: Geoff Hoyle's solo performance about what it's like to grow old. Thursdays, Saturdays, Sundays. Continues through July 10. $20-$50. The Marsh, 1062 Valencia (at 22nd St.), 826-5750.

Into the Clear Blue Sky: Sleepwalkers Theatre's second play in its "apocalypse trilogy." Written by J.C. Lee. Thursdays-Saturdays. Continues through April 30. $15-$17. The Phoenix Theatre, 414 Mason (at Post), 989-0023.

The Lily's Revenge: Play examining marriage starring playwright and burlesque performer Taylor Mac. Tuesdays-Sundays. Continues through May 22. $20-$65. Magic Theatre, Fort Mason, Bldg. D, Marina & Buchanan, 441-8822.

Loveland: Solo show by Ann Randolph. Fridays, Saturdays; Sundays. Continues through May 8. $20-$100. The Marsh, 1062 Valencia (at 22nd St.), 826-5750.

Monday Night Marsh: On select Mondays a different lineup of musicians, actors, performance artists, and others takes the stage at this regular event that's hosted local celebs like Josh Kornbluth and Marga Gomez in the past; see www.themarsh.org for a lineup of future shows. Mondays. $7. The Marsh, 1062 Valencia (at 22nd St.), 826-5750.

No Exit: Based on a vision of hell by Jean-Paul Sartre. Tuesdays-Sundays. Continues through May 1. $7.50-$88. American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary (at Mason), 749-2228.

Sea Turtles: A GenerationTheatre production in which four characters at different ages are played by seven actresses. Fridays-Sundays. Continues through April 30. $9.99-$30. Exit Theatre, 156 Eddy (at Taylor), 673-3847.

Secret Improv Society: Underground improvisational theater. Saturdays, 10 p.m. $15. Shelton Theater, 533 Sutter (at Powell), 882-9100.

Shopping! The Musical: Songs and sketches about shopping. Fridays, Saturdays, 8 p.m. $23-$29. www.shoppingthemusical.com. Shelton Theater, 533 Sutter (at Powell), 882-9100.

Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven: Satire on race written by Young Jean Lee. Wednesdays-Saturdays. Continues through April 30. $15-$25. The Thick House, 1695 18th St. (at Arkansas), 401-8081.

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