Camino Real. Tennessee Williams' 1953 stream-of-consciousness fantasia set in a timeless no man's land is difficult to stage. The largely plotless drama revolving around broken dreams and futile attempts to escape the confines of a dead-end, vaguely Latin American seaport features a staggering 36 characters and many extras. Some of them are products solely of Williams' imagination. Others are figures from legend and history, such as Don Quixote, Jacques Casanova, and Lord Byron. Biz Duncan's set design for Actors Theatre's ambitious but otherwise arrhythmic, navel-gazing production manages to conjure Williams' claustrophobic dreamscape with its high yet flimsy-looking walls. To their credit, directors Christian Phillips and Keith Phillips explore every corner of the space, setting scenes at ground level, overhead on balconies, and even up and down the aisles that flank the seating area. Unfortunately, the acting and pacing of the production don't live up to the creativity of the set. Each of the 16 multiple-part-playing cast members seems to be starring in his or her individual, private play. Through Dec. 8 at Actors Theatre of San Francisco, 855 Bush (at Mason), S.F. Tickets are $20-30; call 345-1287 or visit www.actorstheatresf.org. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed Nov. 14.
The Color Purple: The Musical About Love. Events in the Broadway musical adaptation of Alice Walker's novel and Steven Spielberg's film The Color Purple happen at such a bewildering speed that it's difficult to keep up. One moment we're watching the narrative's downtrodden protagonist Celie as a young girl playing with her sister Nettie. The next, Celie is pregnant. Then she's forced to marry the evil Ol' Mister. Next she's separated from Nettie. Then Ol' Mister's sexy mistress arrives in town. We barely have time to orient ourselves in the young black woman's misery when we're suddenly thrown into a full-blown African tribal dance scene complete with stomping natives waving banana leaves. A few bombastic production numbers such as the plucky war cry "Hell No!" help relieve the exhaustion and tedium of the plot's relentless trudge. The audience cannot help but respond to Felicia P. Field's ballsy Sofia as she swaggers about the stage bullying her husband Harpo into submission while turning him on with a sultry swish of her massive hips. "Hell No!" is Sofia's torch song, and she sings it as if she's Henry V about to take on the French at the Battle of Agincourt. But the musical throws away several prime opportunities to create dramatic shape. When Jeannette Bayardelle's Celie finally plucks up the courage to tell Ol' Mister what she thinks of him by belting out "I may be poor, I may be black, I may be ugly, but I'm here!" we freeze with expectation. But instead of launching into what could be Celie's answer to Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive," the music stops dead and the plot trundles on. Through Dec. 9 at the Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market (at Grove), S.F. Tickets are $35-99; call 551-2000 or visit www.shnsf.com. (C.V.) Reviewed Oct. 31.
The Crowd You're in With. Rebecca Gilman's new play begins in a festive spirit as a couple in their early 30s host a July 4 party in the backyard of their rented Chicago apartment. Like a buffalo wing that has been left on the barbecue for too long, the holiday atmosphere soon becomes carcinogenic. The main catalyst for discomfort is reproduction. Jasper and Melinda want to get pregnant but have so far had no luck. Their friends Windsong and Dan, seven months on the way to having their first child, are feeling smug. Landlords Tom and Karen, meanwhile, decided long ago not to become parents and have never looked back. The characters hash out the "to procreate or not to procreate" debate in Gilman's flimsy 80-minute drama to its bitter end until Jasper, in particular, is left doubting everything he thought he held most dear. Director Amy Glazer's fluid staging, Gilman's Seinfeldian knack for making fun of the tiny details of quotidian life, and the cast's casual approach make us believe we're watching reality onstage. Unfortunately, the sense of shared experience dissolves into cliché. From the music-infatuated man-child in Converse sneakers (whom Nick Hornby captured so vividly more than a decade ago in High Fidelity) to the pushy, thirtysomething female with a fast-ticking body clock, we've seen these types before. Through Dec. 30 at the Magic Theatre, Fort Mason Center (Marina and Buchanan), Building D, S.F. Tickets are $20-45; call 441-8822 or visit www.magictheatre.org. (C.V.) Reviewed Nov. 28.
Killing My Lobster: For the Very First Time. I've got no shame in admitting I've always had big fat crushes on all the ladies of Killing My Lobster. They're hip, funny, and undeniably charismatic, which is all kinds of sexy in my book. So given that they've been around for ten years, it's about time they did an all-female show. KML alum Shaye Troha takes the directorial reins for the first time and has narrowed down more than 80 original sketches to 15 for this show. The theme is "first times," and the short sketches include the first time an alien eats a bagel, the first woman president, and the first man ever shot by a cowboy. Unfortunately, much like a Saturday Night Live episode, some scenes kill, while plenty of others fall flat and feel unfinished. The Spice Girls–esque singing numbers, accompanied by a funkified live band of guys in drag, are hilarious. The sleepover party playing with a Ouija board and the girls farting in an elevator are also classics. But given the talent these women, along with their troupe, have shown in the past, this show should be nonstop laughter, and while often very funny, For the Very First Time doesn't quite get there. Through Dec. 9 at the ODC Theater, 3153 17th St. (at Webster), S.F. Tickets are $15-20; call 863-9834 or visit www.killingmylobster.com. (Nathaniel Eaton) Reviewed Nov. 21.
Sex. When she was released from jail for transgressing indecency laws with her 1926 comedy about a street-smart prostitute's adventures in love, Mae West became a star. The play might be flimsily plotted (the story concerns hooker-with-a-heart Margy LaMont's journey from the gutter to the stars via a Montreal flophouse, a Trinidad nightclub, and the mansion of a wealthy Connecticut family) and feature a string of gratuitous, old-fashioned songs. But Tom Ross' revival at Aurora Theatre captivates because of its sense of fun and ability to connect what the play meant to West and her audiences with what it means to us today. Instead of mocking West's artistic sensibility, Ross and his collaborators embrace every hokey one-liner as though West wrote it just last week for The Daily Show and go at each sentimental musical number as if they mean it. Delia MacDougall unapologetically channels West's persona in her portrayal of LaMont; she has all of West's legendary mannerisms down, from her loaded vocal purr to her Jell-O swagger. Yet the performance never feels like a caricature. The result not only makes for an entertaining night out at the theater, but also a provocative one. Through Dec. 9 at Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison (at Shattuck), Berkeley. Tickets are $40-42; call 510-843-4822 or visit www.auroratheatre.org. (C.V.) Reviewed Nov. 21.