Monster. The blessing (or, depending on how you look at it, the curse) of Mary Shelley's novel Frankenstein is its open-endedness. The author's refusal to pass moral judgment upon Victor Frankenstein and his monster is largely responsible for the avalanche of adaptations the work has inspired since its publication almost 200 years ago. SF Playhouse's production of Monster, a recent makeover of the legend by Obie Award-winning playwright Neal Bell, centers on a twentysomething Frankenstein (Jason Frazier), conceived as a thoroughly Romantic hero with a spindly frame, cascading blond hair, tortured features, and a penchant for persecuting household pets. Between the faux-Gothic melodrama of director Bill English's mise-en-scène and Bell's yuk-yuk sense of humor, Monster moves as if with a clubfoot. Instead of creating a sense of wild spoof through the marriage of melodrama and slapstick, as Mel Brooks did so successfully in his 1974 movie Young Frankenstein, the play presents moments of horror-style tension that fall flat. Monster is entertaining, but there's little to make it stand out from the avalanche. Through March 19 at SF Playhouse, 536 Sutter (between Powell and Mason), S.F. Tickets are $30; call 677-9596 or visit www.sfplayhouse.org. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed Feb. 23.
No Exit. In Jean-Paul Sartre's 1944 play No Exit, three newly deceased people from different walks of life are condemned to an unusual kind of hell: They must spend the rest of eternity together in a sparsely furnished 19th-century-style salon. Joseph Garcin is a South American journalist killed in a cowardly attempt to flee Rio during a political uprising. Estelle Rigo, a voluptuous young Parisian socialite, killed her baby before succumbing to pneumonia. And Ines Serrano, a lesbian postal worker, dispatched her lover's husband only to be killed in turn by her lover. In the Cutting Ball Theater's powerful production, the actors are presented with the barest of canvases upon which to paint Sartre's vision of eternity. The economy and precision of Rob Melrose's unembellished translation set a tone as chilly as that of the original. Jon Brennan's scenic design seems flat and almost two-dimensional against the permanent glare of cold white light. Given the sparseness of the text and the stage, the audience's gaze cannot help but be focused on the characters, just as they are forced to focus on one another. Barely a year goes by without some Bay Area company or other seeing fit to give No Exit an airing. This year marks the centennial of Sartre's birth, an auspicious time to premiere a sharp new translation. The Cutting Ball's production, with its elegance and force, mines deep into the soul of Sartre's text, holding up a mirror to human nature. Through March 12 at Exit Stage Left, 156 Eddy (between Taylor and Mason), S.F. Tickets are $15-20; call 419-3584 or visit www.cuttingball.com. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed Feb. 2.
Not a Genuine Black Man. It's not easy being green, but try being a black kid in San Leandro in the early '70s. When Brian Copeland got there -- just a few months after the Summer of Love, he points out -- it was one of the most viciously racist suburbs in America. Now it's officially the most diverse. "Take that, San Francisco," Copeland chides. He's earned that attitude, not just for going through his hell of growing up, but also for extracting from it such affirmative, hilarious stuff. Copeland's rightfully popular one-man show is wrought from pain and rage but never really succumbs to bitterness. "Is that black?" he asks, and proves that it is. Some of his best stereotype-busting material doesn't feel especially new, but it does feel good. Besides, it's the stereotypes that have passed their expiration dates: Copeland's title comes from an accusation recently flung at him by a cranky listener who called in to his KGO radio program. This show is his response. With help from declarative lighting and David Ford's direction, Copeland creates an affecting hybrid of the dramatic monologue and the rollicking stand-up act. Through March 26 at the Marsh, 1062 Valencia (at 22nd Street), S.F. Tickets are $15-22; call 826-5750 or visit www.themarsh.org. (Jonathan Kiefer) Reviewed June 2, 2004.
Not About Nightingales. From allegations of misconduct against prisoners of war at Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo to the approval of Arnold Schwarzenegger's latest plan to overhaul California's penitentiaries, the U.S. prison system is coming under more scrutiny these days than it has for a while. Like the Actors Theatre's recent production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Theatre Rhinoceros' harrowing staging of Tennessee Williams' Not About Nightingales brings the subject of prison reform firmly into focus. Written in 1938 and based upon true events, this explicit drama describes the grisly outcome of a prison hunger strike. Nightingales is an early Williams work, and the playwright would later learn that offstage violence can be more powerful than onstage brutality: We don't see Blanche raped in A Streetcar Named Desire, for instance. With actor/director John Fisher's imaginative use of the dingy, subterranean space and some provocative performances -- Fisher as the foul warden Whelan and Pete Caslavka as prisoner Canary Jim are particularly memorable -- the production packs a powerful punch. However, in such an intimate setting, the relentless noise of clomping boots and yelling can be tiresome. Toning it down a notch would remove none of the impact. Through March 13 at Theatre Rhinoceros, 2926 16th St. (between Mission and South Van Ness), S.F. Tickets are $15-25; call 861-5079 or visit www.therhino.org. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed March 2.