Expedition 6. Bill Pullman's new docudrama was born out of a desire to make sense of the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster of February 2003. The result, a nebulous nexus of texts culled from such sources as NASA space logs and Osama bin Laden speeches; low-flying trapeze; live and recorded music; and dozens of props, suggests that the director might still be struggling to makes sense of his topic even after several years of developmental workshops. Focusing not on the shuttle disaster itself but rather on the three crew members of NASA Expedition 6, who found themselves trapped aboard the International Space Station for six months following the Columbia's flameout, the production bombards theater audiences with a meteor shower of half-sketched ideas. A chipper CNN reporter turns the astronauts' rescue into a soap opera. An Islamic fundamentalist sees the United States' misfortunes as a sign from Allah. These concepts, though wide-ranging, fail to fuse. What thesis there might be lurking underneath gets lost in the melee of unfurling trapezes, flying bodies, whizzing office chairs, and – perplexingly – pizza trays adorned with miniature plastic fighter planes and tanks. Yet at moments, Pullman's vision crystallizes into poetry, offering us a glimpse into life at zero gravity that is as bright as a desert sky at night. Choreographer Robert Davidson's balletic-sculptural trapeze sequences lift the viewer into an emotional realm. Casting long shadows under cold blue lights, the dangling human forms do more to express the idea of a planet in freefall, of humanity lost in space, than all the robotically delivered NASA statistics and bland media interviews combined. Through Oct. 7 at the Magic Theatre, Fort Mason Center (Marina Blvd. and Buchanan), Building D, third floor, S.F. Tickets are $25-75; call 441-8822 or visit www.magictheatre.org. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed Sept. 26.
Heartbreak House. The plot of George Bernard Shaw's strange and sprawling critique of society's apathy in the face of war – if it can be called a plot, for practically nothing happens over the space of three hours – follows a day in the lives of a middle-class English family and their various houseguests and hangers-on. What potential there is for conflict is constantly undermined as these well-educated, early-20th-century Britishers do little else but lounge about on sofas discussing sleeping arrangements, their latest romantic intrigues, and Shakespeare. About two-thirds of director Les Waters' spacious yet taut production spine-chillingly succeeds in making us feel uncomfortable with our own leisured, apathetic lives. Annie Smart's heavenly, Frank Lloyd Wright–inspired set reminds us that we live with our heads in the clouds, while the all-around seductive performances (even from David Chandler's coffin-faced businessman, Boss Mangan) are so likeable that we can't help but see ourselves in Shaw's lazy, disreputable characters. Yet just when we're feeling so thoroughly chastised by Shaw's drama that we're considering flying to Washington and impaling ourselves on the railings outside the White House in protest against the war in Iraq, Waters' production abruptly changes gear. By staging the final scenes in a barren, post-Holocaustlike twilight, Waters certainly captures the essence of Shaw's doomsday message. But the jolting mood swing unfortunately allows the spirit of revolution to slip quietly away from us. Through Oct. 14 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2025 Addison (at Shattuck), Berkeley. Tickets are $33-69; call 510-647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org. (C.V.) Reviewed Sept. 19.
Song of Myself. It's easy to lump Walt Whitman in with all those other 19th-century writers who mistook themselves for invisible eyeballs and meandered aimlessly through the woods reciting passages from the Bhagavad Gita. But if anyone can talk us into reclaiming the American bard, it's John O'Keefe. The playwright/performer's abbreviated version of "Song of Myself" — Whitman's fecund ode to the pleasures of loafing — is an art song in spoken form. Poised halfway between being a straight recitation and an imaginative interpretation of Whitman's poem, the performance plays with our intellect and emotions like an intoxicating piece of music. From the euphoric whoop of the opening line to the melting breath of the final thought as it dissolves into darkness, O'Keefe takes us through many keys, major and minor, as he explores Whitman's universe. At times, the poem races hectically forward, the performer lurching after the words like someone fielding simultaneous calls on a cellphone. Elsewhere during the performance, the mood is more reflective. O'Keefe cozies up to individual audience members, creating a bond of intimacy with us through Whitman's words. The poet's erratic, stream-of-consciousness style may be easier to digest while reading privately than while listening to someone recite his lines out loud. But thanks to the vitality and variety of O'Keefe's approach, it doesn't take much for us to feel a sense of affinity for Whitman's celebration of himself. Through Oct. 20. at the Marsh San Francisco, 1062 Valencia (between 21st and 22nd streets), S.F. Tickets are $15-25; call 800-838-3006 or visit www.themarsh.org. (C.V.) Reviewed June 13.
Sweeney Todd. It was Stephen Sondheim's intention to simply write a dark, witty musical revenge fantasy in the tradition of the Parisian Grand Guignol, famed for its over-the-top graphic violence. The original 1979 Broadway production of Sweeney Todd starring Angela Lansbury had massive sets and a 27-piece orchestra, and though it was a big hit, it wasn't what the composer visualized. But this reimagined production, direct from Broadway and with much of the same stellar cast, is, in Sondheim's words, "the closest to what I originally wanted to do." The incomparably talented 10-person cast, using a range of instruments from cellos to xylophones, plays every note of the complex score, all the while acting and singing Sondheim's lyrical overlaps and rounds. There's a purity in this all-hands-on-deck storytelling that suits this tale of a wrongly imprisoned man seeking revenge with the swipe of his barber's blade. From the first moment when Todd (a haunted and brilliant David Hess) emerges from a black plywood coffin and joins forces with Mrs. Lovett (Tony Award winner Judy Kaye), the macabre tone is set for the mayhem that includes cannibalism, straitjackets, insane asylums, and countless buckets of blood. This production and its cast also manage to transcend all the pandemonium and dare to tell more of a soulful story of love and loss, and the wreckage that can ensue in a life consumed with revenge. Through Oct. 14 at A.C.T., 415 Geary (between Mason and Taylor), S.F. Tickets are $30-82; call 749-2228 or visit www.act-sfbay.org. (Nathaniel Eaton) Reviewed Sept. 19.
Teatro ZinZanni. It's no wonder that this popular dinner-theater extravaganza of "love, chaos, dinner" has a special place in the hearts of locals and city newbies alike. Set in a 1920s vintage big-top tent, ZinZanni offers guests a taste of cabaret, vaudeville, and circus merriment. A cast of ever-rotating characters regales audience members with flirty hijinks: Illusionists, contortionists, and aerial dancers peddle their magic while also making sure to badger the guests, not in a bad Vegas nightclub way, but with an air that's as endearing as it is cheesy. The best thing is that everyone who works there is somehow tied into the show; waitresses dance and do can-can routines as they bring out the grub (a rich, five-course prix fixe that's a little French, a little Italian, and a little Californian). ZinZanni's show won't offend or make anyone's fur bristle; and while arty innovation isn't the cast's forte, the performance is a lighthearted, old-fashioned romp that offers a welcome reprieve from the somberness of, say, a night at the opera. Open-ended run at Pier 29 (Embarcadero at Battery), S.F. Tickets are $116-$140. Call 438-2668 or visit www.zinzanni.org. (Nirmala Nataraj)