Sociable Darwinists Comic actor John Cleese ponders the meaning of life yet again when he and British biologist Richard Dawkins satirize the interview process during a City Arts & Lectures onstage conversation. So far, Cleese's best-known contribution to biology is the "Every Sperm Is Sacred" anthem from Monty Python's The Meaning of Life, but as it turns out, the Flying Circus star has long been fascinated with science and involved in related educational projects. Besides knowing his evolutionary theory, Cleese is a close friend of Dawkins, an internationally known Darwinist whose books The Blind Watchmaker and Climbing Mount Improbable have been praised by peers and condemned by creationists. Cleese and Dawkins offer a respite from the ongoing controversy over our origins with a tongue-in-cheek science chat beginning at 8 p.m. at the Herbst Theater, 401 Van Ness (at McAllister), S.F. Admission is $17; call 392-4400.
I'm Nobody. Who Are You? Academia's intense scrutiny of Emily Dickinson's work would have terrified the poet, who gradually wearied of human interaction and shut herself off from her public. Now regarded as one of America's finest writers, Dickinson published less than a dozen poems in her lifetime and died a recluse at 56 in the same house in which she was born -- it wasn't until after her demise that her sister Lavinia discovered hundreds of other poems stashed in a trunk. Using excerpts from her poems, epigrams, and many letters to friends, playwright William Luce (Barrymore) brings Dickinson into closer focus with his one-woman biographical drama The Belle of Amherst. Former ACT Associate Artistic Director Joy Carlin reprises her role as Dickinson in the Aurora Theater production, which previews at 8 p.m. (and runs through Dec. 13) at the Berkeley City Club, 2315 Durant (at Ellsworth), Berkeley. Admission is $20-32; call (510) 843-4822.
Outer Limits Composer Mark Growden has seen the yodeling, cookie-tin-banging, accordion-playing future of musical performance, and it is good. Growden and some of his Wiggle Biscuit Records recording artists are among the performers at the second annual San Francisco Stretch Festival, a four-night series of 14 acts taking text and music in eclectic new directions. On the first night out, Charming Hostess' Klezmer/Balkan pop meets found-object percussion, bass, and banjo-backed spoken word from Bass Line Da Da; yodeler Dawn McCarthy and former Idiot Flesh singer Nils ("The Pin") Frykdahl weigh in as the duo Two Dimensions. The next few nights feature Growden (a sometime composer for Lines Contemporary Ballet) playing with multimedia performance artist Deke Weaver, the Club Foot Orchestra's Myles Boisen, and Beck trumpet player John Birdsong; theatrical movement from the Joe Goode Performance Group; sea chanteys and patchwork blues from Rube Waddell; the Beth Lisick Ordeal's poetic mayhem; dusty lullabies and accordion trance music from Down River; and the Fabulous Hedgehogs' Mike Silverman playing one-stringed bass as That One Guy. Shows begin at 8 p.m. (through Sunday) at Dancers Group Studio Theater, 3221 22nd St. (at Mission), S.F. Admission is $10 per night; call 824-5044.
The Thrill of Victory, Etc. Warren Miller's skiing and snowboarding film Freeriders captures more than just white-knuckle verticals and flying powder, although there's no shortage of either. In his quest for fresh snow and adventurous athletes, the 73-year-old sports film guru also found the skiing nuns of Idaho, "Dummy Downhill" homemade-sled races in Vermont, septuagenarian Klaus Obermeyer's invention of the snow kayak, and snowless skiing at "Plastic on the Palisades," a resort banked by man-made hills near otherwise flat and mostly snowless London. On the extreme end, skiers brave the steep slopes of Portillo, Chile, and snowboard Swiss peaks, risking their necks in some of the world's most breathtaking natural scenery. Skiing gold medalist and local talent Jonny Moseley appears in a high-flying segment about old- and new-school aerial techniques. This testament to unfettered thrill-seeking screens at 6 and 9 p.m. (also Friday at 6:30 and 9:30 p.m.) at the Palace of Fine Arts, Bay & Lyon, S.F. Admission is $13; call 284-9990.
Get Lucky The best way to write a play is to "take two characters and get them in an argument," as playwright Beth Henley once put it. Henley's own characters (especially her women) in the Pulitzer-winning drama Crimes of the Heart and The Miss Firecracker Contest survive arguments as well as bad breaks and personal crises, relying on grit and a dollop of Southern sass to see them through. Expect more of the same as the Actors Theater stages Henley's comedy The Lucky Spot, set on Christmas Eve 1934 in Louisiana's backwoods. Hooker (Keith Burkland), the financially strapped owner of a new dance hall, faces off with his ex-con wife, a klutzy taxi dancer, and his pregnant teen-age fiancee, but despite all the bickering, everyone winds up having a damn fine Christmas. Finn Curtin directs the show, which opens at 8 p.m. (and runs through Dec. 19) at the Actors Theater, 533 Sutter (at Mason), S.F. Admission is $16-18; call 296-9179.
Fascinatin' Rhythm The 30th annual Taiko Festival opens with a bang and never lets up. The weekendlong fest, highlighting the thunderous, rhythmic percussion of traditional Japanese drumming, opens tonight with a gala at which a sake cask will be broken with a mighty crack and drinks ceremonially circulated for good luck; participating performers will accompany a rice pounding ceremony with taiko drumming and song as luminaries like Pat Morita and George Lucas look on. At the International Taiko Festival Concert later this evening, San Francisco Taiko Dojo and Japan's Nihon Taiko Dojo will be hitting the big drums, which were originally intended to spur villagers into battle. They'll be joined by groups representing taiko's modern permutations: Native American percussionist Benito Concha, Kitaro, taiko/jazz pianist Eiji Tsuchiya, and Tahitian and Hawaiian dancing and drumming from Hawaii Matsuri Daiko. Panel discussions, workshops, and more music round out the weekend. The festival opens at 5:30 p.m. in the West Pauly Ballroom, UC Berkeley campus. Admission is $20-100; call 928-2456.