Lamb's work with the material is impressive. He was last seen as Mr. Sartorius in the Aurora Theater Company's excellent version of Widowers' Houses, and this show is just as good. He's digested every line of the tale; he can recite the more than two hours' worth of verse in a natural, fluent voice and inhabit a whole gallery of colorful characters. If all the Tales are done this well, the last few should be worth seeing. J.U. Nicholson's translation from Middle English is awkward and pompous now and then, but mostly it seems to flow, so that after a few minutes the strange experience of listening to a rhyming, medieval story feels no stranger than Shakespeare.

-- Michael Scott Moore

Split Decision
Your Arms Too Short to Box With God. By Vinnette Carroll. Directed by Samuel G. LeSane. Starring Arvis Strickling Jones, James Everett Johnson, and Hollis Hayden. At the Lorraine Hansberry Theater, 620 Sutter (at Mason), through Dec. 14. Call 474-8800.

To capture a waning theatergoing audience, drama companies in the early '70s began to emulate rock shows, with booming beats, psychedelic backdrops, and scenes penned to shock. Biblical narratives were excavated and used as ready-mades to work over audiences emotionally. Andrew Lloyd Weber's Jesus Christ Superstar and John-Michael Tebelak's Godspell, for example, helped an ailing Broadway/West End with a lively theater geared toward mass consumption. In the same Jesus vein, but without all the pyrotechnics and big-dollar investment, there was Vinnette Carroll's religio-gospel musical Your Arms Too Short to Box With God, designed to bring an audience's adrenalin and emotion to the frenzy typically experienced during a Sunday gospel service.

Director Samuel G. LeSane has revived the play for San Francisco's Lorraine Hansberry Theater. In a deep, resonant voice, a preacher prompts his gold-robed choir: "I want you to go all the way back ... to a time when there's no Homer or Bart Simpson ... no Oprah." The choir responds: "Umm, uhh." The stage setting is a simple church interior: A couple of stained-glass window panes hang from the back wall, gold-painted boxes (standing for pews) fan out from stage center, and a piano and drum set sit offstage along with their players. The preacher and the dozen or so choir members enact at various points the different roles of Pilate, Mary, a blind man, a beggar, a cripple, and so forth. Matthew's story of Christ's arrival in Jerusalem -- his miracle-working, betrayal, and crucifixion -- unfolds in a call-and-response style.

Unfortunately, the old-time gospel revival feel is squashed under the weight of shallow, gimmicky theatrics. The story is cut into snippets so small it's hard to keep track of the characters or plot, even if you're already well-informed. The dance/pantomime sequences (one choir member singing the story as another acts it out) along with some attempts at comic anachronism (a character referring to Christ as "homeboy"; discussion over whether a sacred robe came from Ralph Lauren or JCPenney) don't really help flesh out character, nor do they churn up emotion. Interestingly, LeSane casts Christ not as white and effete but as a muscle-bound black man. Yet we get more of a detailed sense of Christ's pectoral striations than expressions of his inner turmoil; he speaks not a single line.

Your Arms isn't all a dud. There are moments of transcendental clarity when it most resembles a gospel performance. Offstage singer/pianist Arvis Strickling Jones single-handedly achieves this with her full-bodied, bluesy performance. I couldn't help feeling, however, that I'd rather get my outta-body experience listening to Strickling Jones at Sunday service, or while kicking it at an Oakland R&B club.

-- Frederick Luis Aldama

Piece Talks
Operation No Penetration. Written and directed by Torange Yeghiazarian. Starring Pamela Beitz, Bella Ramzan-Nia, Reema Bahnasy, and Dylin Redling. Presented by the Next Stage, 1668 Bush (at Franklin). Call (510) 986-9194.

In Aristophanes' day, when the war between Athens and Sparta was destroying the fabric of society, the idea of a sex strike must have made a certain kind of sense. After all, gender roles still decreed that men were soldiers and women were wives and nary the twain should meet in the form of a GI Jane. Now, with contemporary sexuality as varietal and seasonal as a California menu, the notion that women might stop a war by saying no to the penis is harder to accept.

Still, the lure of this masterpiece of subversive humor continues to inspire new interpretations. Operation No Penetration, a contemporary adaptation of Kenneth McLeish's translation of Aristophanes' Lysistrata, struggles with this mission and ultimately mangles it. First-time playwright Torange Yeghiazarian makes her initial miscalculation by broadening the play's scope from the story of a specific war between two nations to a global issue. Her Lysistrata is a Jewish New Yorker who calls together women from every nation to start a sex strike for world peace. The core group (an Iranian, a Palestinian-American, a Chinese, and a Mexican) reflects the particular perspective of the company -- Golden Thread Productions -- and its commitment to Middle Eastern issues. In this version, the women take over the Capitol and hold a celibate sit-in while men from all over the world, missiles sprouting unsheathed from their pants, rove the streets moaning. The story plods along -- shadowing the original -- with a few funny contemporary references but not enough wit to lubricate the requisite climax: peace followed by oodles of overwrought sex.

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