The New and Improved Stages of Grief. Mary Carpenter's solo performance is, as she explains, her own work, that of "a non-doctor, but practitioner." The show, though based on her experience navigating the minefield of modern mourning rituals - after losing her high school boyfriend, her brother, and finally, close friend and Philly Comedy–Sportz icon Mike Young - is, at its core, a comic piece. After all, Carpenter has been a ComedySportz improv performer for nearly 20 years.

A wry update of the five stages of grief as outlined in Elizabeth Kubler-Ross' 1969 book On Death and Dying, Carpenter hosts a slide show for each stage, and suggests its replacement. For example: instead of the author's Stage One, "Denial," why not the more accurate "WTF?" Mixed with these segments are brief, homey "Death with Dot" sketches regarding funeral etiquette, alongside some less successful audience participatory improv (a bit about the economics of grief stretches too long with not enough payoff).

However, Carpenter's piece is more than just an irreverent lark. She balances humor with reflection, never allowing the material to become maudlin, but not exactly pulling her punches, either. She also includes, in her final stage of grief (Nine, which is four more than Kubler-Ross allowed) the most moving Harry Potter reference I've ever heard on- or off-stage. Really.

   - Wendy Rosenfield

Hello From the Children of Planet Earth. In the basement of a former Center City industrial building, actors playing a male and female scientist take notes as a young astronaut, Tom, orbits the Earth and talks weekly to his worried wife in Skype-like video conversations. Major Tom to ground control? Yes, exactly, and the David Bowie song plays at one point while we wonder what this mission will lead to.

Plot aside, it leads to a foregone but nicely laid-out conclusion: We can travel through the universe if we want, but it's a mighty lonely planet without someone to buck you up. The sweet, endearing Hello from the Children of Planet Earth is a production from the young theater artists of New York-based AGGROCRAG, and its point - that a single solid human connection renders us not just a speck, but a mighty speck in the universe - is made with clarity and a pleasant theatricality.

The cast is excellent, under the direction of Max Reuben, who conceived the play: Alex Fast as the space traveler and Nichole Balsam as his wife; Andrew Farmer and Nicole Weiss as the scientists, Mike Brun and Miriam Miller on musical instruments.

But the absolute best part of Hello is the conversations between two newly minted adults who are astronauts on a mission never defined, and who sit above the stage, backed by a curtain of starlight. They are played by Jon Herman and Benj Mirman, both impossibly charming as they deliver garden-variety banter that means nothing - until you realize it means everything to building a bond, a friendship that will cement their characters' entire lives.

   - Howard Shapiro

8: Megan Mazarick and Meg Foley. Dark brown soil wafted up from beneath the dancers' feet. Milkweed pods were broken, and the fluffy white seeds floated through the air. Megan Mazarick used these inexpensive, effective, alluring visuals in her dance Neon Gothic, part of the Live Arts Festival's first of four variations under the umbrella title "8: Eight Choreographers/Eight New Works."

Mazarick must not have allergies. Not all of us are so lucky.

With a hand covering my mouth and nose – an only somewhat effective filter – and through scratchy eyes, I admired Mazarick's duets – particularly the literally down-and-dirty one she danced with Ben Asriel as the walking dead - if not her method of setting a scene.

Meg Foley opened the evening with Match vs. Match, a minimalistic exploration of action and reaction for three dancers. It opened with one, Greg Holt, describing his movements and motivations as he danced each step. Soon he, Foley, and Christina Zani took that further, pushing, pulling, exploring, and moving alone as well as nearly on top of each other.

The concept is interesting, but not a half-hour's worth.

   - Ellen Dunkel

Cheap Guy HOF, Class of 2010. HOF stands for Hall of Fame, and the idea of the show - a mixed-bag of five short plays that span just under 90 minutes - is that it depicts the inaugural class of the Cheap Guy Hall of Fame.

It's actually the inaugural play by Hella Fresh Theatre, a new stage company in the performance space of the just-opened Papermill, an old paper mill on little Ormes Street in the Kensington neighborhood. There, a group of artists have created a gallery and are working on classrooms and a lounge, and rent studios for as low as $100 a month.

The best of HOF's five one-acts, - all written and directed by Hella Fresh's founder, John Rosenberg, who appears in two of them - is the last, "Gold Diggers of 2002." It's the story of a young man (handsome Scott Sitman, a natural actor) and the young woman he meets (the alluring, convincing Hannah Gavagan) on Christmas Day 2001 at the Algonquin Bar in New York. They seem strangers in the oncoming night, and Rosenberg's plot offers backstories that give the play more heft as it moves along, well-performed by its two believable actors.

The first one-act, "Untitled," has Rosenberg as a rough-and-tumble GI in Paris during World War II, visiting what he believes is the studio of Pablo Picasso (Jerry Carrier, a retired Philadelphia Daily News staff writer who has taken to acting over the past decade). Of course, it's not Picasso, and things seem to fall apart from the tense first moments; the soldier, though, is a fuzzily-defined character, and he seems to unwind without real cause.

A play set in Saigon was nearly incomprehensible to me. Another, in Hollywood, has good possibilities and could be enlarged to a fuller piece. And one set in Iraq features a female soldier whose instant nastiness is without reason and whose eventual mellowing is as mystifying.

   - Howard Shapiro