Benedictus. If you read the newspapers with a discerning eye, you'll get the strong sense that we'll be at war with Iran in the very near future. If you are like a vast majority of our nation's populace (myself included), you probably don't know much about Iran outside of talk of nuclear proliferation and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's inflammatory statements denying the Holocaust and stating that Iran has no homosexuals. The new play Benedictus is a result of a collaboration among artists from Iran, Israel, and the U.S. with the purpose of putting a human face on the rising conflict among the three nations. At the center of this ambitious piece are two men, childhood friends born in Iran, who after being estranged both politically and nationally, agree to a secret meeting at a Benedictine monastery in the back streets of Rome. What ensues is a heated personal dialogue that touches on terrorism, blackmail, and bribery. There's also plenty of backroom dealing to essentially avoid World War III. This is a fictionalized meeting but gives an intriguing peek into the secret deals and political motivations that are most certainly going on among these nations behind closed doors in the real world. Motti Lerner's script offers no clean answers but certainly helps to clarify and humanize these multifaceted issues that are drawing our nations into an avoidable conflict. Through Oct. 21 at The Thick House, 1695 18th St. (between Carolina & Arkansas), S.F. Tickets are $10-50; call 410-8081 or visit www.goldenthread.org. (Nathaniel Eaton) Reviewed Oct. 10.
Big Co. Boxcar Theatre's new show tells a story that has been immortalized many times in the past, from Joni Mitchell's 1970s folk song "Big Yellow Taxi" to Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott's 2004 documentary The Corporation. The plot juxtaposes two businesses – a tiny, family-run Russian deli, and the massive multinational next door. As Nikolai Borísov (Nick Olivero) and his sister Sonya (Sarah Korda) struggle to make ends meet and keep their customers satisfied in an increasingly hostile, Starbucks- and McDonald's-driven marketplace, the marketing director at Bhigge Company, Mr. Mann (Peter Matthews), and his environmentally astute assistant Jenny Doh (Dana Lau) strategize about how best to fulfill their organization's corporate responsibility mandate while maintaining a staggering profit margin. With its upfront messages and scenes loaded with Internet-search-engine-quality research, the production feels at times like a college essay in theatrical form. It could also use some dramaturgical honing in places. Yet Boxcar's heartfelt, humorous journey into the black soul of corporate America puts an interesting twist on the agitprop theater tradition by showing us the downsides and upsides of big and small businesses alike. Through Oct. 20 at Boxcar Theatre, 505 Natoma (at Fourth St.), S.F. Tickets are free; call 776-1747 or visit www.boxcartheatre.org. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed Oct. 3.
Bulrusher. Set in 1955 in Boonville, California, Eisa Davis' Pulitzer Prize-nominated drama takes place during one of the most turbulent periods in modern American history, from the racially provoked murder of black 14-year-old Emmett Till to black activist Rosa Parks' refusal to give up her bus seat to a white man. But racial issues, at least on the surface, couldn't be further removed from the world of Davis' play. A coming-of-age story set in small-town California about a young, black woman with mysterious powers, the play explores the tensions that lie beneath even the most seemingly "color-blind" of communities. In Margo Hall and Ellen Sebastian Chang's expressively directed production, Shotgun Players turns the theater into something akin to a Californian "Land that Time Forgot." With its layers of wooden decking, secluded corners shaded by thick foliage, and trickling waterways, Lisa Clark's lost kingdom of a set design deposits us in a secluded world. Self-absorbed, often introverted performances from the cast work with the setting to create an experience that feels entirely intimate. Eventually, though, the increasingly melodramatic narrative disrupts the sacrosanct space. While the heavy-handed plotting reveals some hard political and social realities about life in even the most apparently benign of communities, it also inadvertently swallows Davis' evocative use of "Boontling" (the local dialect) and turns what was, at the start of the play, an extraordinary set of characters and circumstances, into rather ordinary fare by the end. Through Oct. 28 at The Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby (at Martin Luther King Jr. Way), Berkeley. Tickets are $17-25; call 510-841-6500 or visit www.shotgunplayers.org. (C.V.) Reviewed Oct. 10.
Countercoup. Over the past 15 years, the Marsh Theater has developed a very successful system of attracting solo artists or would-be performers to develop their life stories for the stage. With a combination of in-house directors (David Ford and Charlie Varon), classes and venues to preview smaller sections of developing work, and a main stage to show off the best full-length material, the Marsh has created a hybrid style of theater that is best described as long-form storytelling. The resulting work is not always slick or completely polished and is often performed by storytellers fairly new to the stage, but the experience is always an intimate look into another person's life. Countercoup's writer and performer Mark McGoldrick did not train as an actor; in fact, he works as a public defender in the East Bay, but when he rolls onstage in the wheelchair he uses, he has quite a story to tell. His rebellious youth of drinking and fighting was cut short when an accident paralyzed him from the waist down. Much of this play focuses on his wonderfully detailed struggle in rehabilitation and the stormy relationships with his family and a good friend. As an actor, McGoldrick is still discovering the material and often indulges a few beats too long or ventures into slightly clichéd material. But as a storyteller he imbues his history with a rough, casual poetry and a soulful wisdom that an actor could never bring. Through Oct. 20 at the Marsh, 1062 Valencia (between 21st and 22nd sts.) S.F. Tickets are $15-35; call 800-838-3006 or visit www.themarsh.org. (N.E.) Reviewed Oct. 3.