Crowns. In TheatreWorks' jubilant production of Regina Taylor's musical play, a Brooklyn teenager sent to live with her grandmother in South Carolina following the death of her brother learns that a hat isn't just something you wear on your head; it's an entire mode of self-expression. You can flirt in a hat, pray in a hat, but one thing you must never, ever do is touch or ask to borrow someone else's hat. Channeling the Lord and good fashion sense through high-energy gospel and blues numbers, Grandmother Shaw and her cronies -- five churchgoing queens with crowns -- sing about the profound and not-so-profound role hats play in their lives. Decorated with more colorful headgear than the Macy's and Nordstrom millinery departments combined, the brightly bedecked cast and stage resemble a tropical coral reef. Though lighthearted and bombastically performed, Crowns is not an entirely frivolous affair. The shadow of death and the struggle for civil rights provide a sobering backdrop to all the feisty hattitude. Through Sept. 18 at the Marines Memorial Theatre, 609 Sutter (at Mason), Second Floor, S.F. Tickets are $35-60; call 771-6900 or visit www.marinesmemorialtheatre.com. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed Aug. 10.
Doing Good. The San Francisco Mime Troupe's Doing Good takes its inspiration from John Perkins' controversial memoir Confessions of an Economic Hit Man. The book describes Perkins' years helping the U.S. government and multinational corporations coerce foreign leaders into serving U.S. foreign policy. The troupe's riff on Perkins' real-life John le Carré-style thriller follows the lives of a young, white, middle-class American couple, James and Molly, and their complicity in the homeland's less-than-benign interests in nations as widespread as Ecuador, Iran, Indonesia, and Panama. To avoid military service in Vietnam in 1968, James marries Molly and the pair move to the remote village of Pobre, Ecuador, on Peace Corps business. Very soon, the couple's innocuous attempts at "doing good" through building schoolhouses and educating local women about childbirth are overtaken by the arrival of a major U.S. corporation, whose aim it is to bring Ecuador "out of the Dark Ages" by building infrastructure with loans calculated to cripple the local economy. Despite some snappy one-liners and the bombastic live musical accompaniment, there's unfortunately little of aesthetic merit in Doing Good to mitigate the terrifying obviousness of its bludgeoning message. Through Oct. 2 at various locations throughout Northern California. Tickets are free; call 285-1717 or visit www.sfmt.org. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed July 13.
Los Big Names. From Heather Gold's I Look Like an Egg, But I Identify as a Cookie to Colman Domingo's A Boy and His Soul, the San Francisco theater scene has been awash of late with quirky and well-conceived solo shows by gay artists. Marga Gomez, however, takes the genre to dizzy new heights in Los Big Names, a one-woman production about growing up gay in a Latino showbiz household. From the moment she steps onstage impersonating her vaudeville-comedian father in a tailcoat, boxer shorts, frilly dress shirt, and stick-on mustache to the moment she departs, slinking off into the wings in her showgirl mother's heels and hat, Gomez displays an aptitude for caricature and social satire as virtuosic as a Tito Puente vibraphone break. Whether reminiscing about Queen Latifah's death scene in the Hollywood megaflop Sphere or reliving the time her parents asked her to choose between them, Gomez never lapses into sentimentality. Thanks to David Schweizer's rhythmic direction, Alexander Nichols' evocative lights and set, and intelligent use of sound by Mark O'Brien, Los Big Names is a bold confessional with deep-rooted family spirit. Through Aug. 21 at the Magic Theatre, Fort Mason Center, Building D, Marina & Buchanan, S.F. Tickets are $20-38; call 441-8822 or visit www.magictheatre.org. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed Aug. 10.
Nicholas Nickleby. California Shakespeare Theater's Nicholas Nickleby, adapted from Charles Dickens' 1838 novel by British playwright David Edgar, manages to wrestle the audience's attention away from rustling picnics and the rising moon through ingeniously theatrical staging and an alacrity of pace that makes you almost forget you've been sitting on a cold seat for more than three hours. Dickens' novel -- which follows the seesaw fortunes of the 19-year-old Nicholas Nickleby and his sister, Kate, in the wake of the death of their kindly but bankrupt father -- was initially adapted by Edgar for a 1980 London production by the Royal Shakespeare Company. Cal Shakes' two-part production, with its 24 actors and 6-1/2-hour running time (both parts together), is a "miniature" version of the original, which employed 48 actors and ran close to nine hours. Edgar himself pared down his RSC text for Cal Shakes. Nickleby owes much of its magic to the combined creativity of directors Jonathan Moscone and Sean Daniels. Edgar's adaptation, which swings back and forth between different locations, is fluidly rendered through seamless physical and emotional changes. The ensemble scenes are lively and magnetic, but the general high pitch of the performances, in which every sentence is delivered as if it were the punch line to an extremely funny and original joke, backfires in a number of ways, such as undermining some of Dickens' most juicy scenes and characters -- the few that are supposed to be over the top. Part Two continues through Sept. 11 at the Bruns Memorial Amphitheater, 100 Gateway Blvd. (just off Highway 24), Orinda. Tickets are $10-55; call (510) 548-9666 or visit www.calshakes.org. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed July 27.