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.
Rooms With Views The late James Michener's collection of Japanese ukiyo-e woodblock prints is known for its considerable breadth, rather like Michener's epic novels. The author donated thousands of choice prints to the Honolulu Academy of Arts, and "Hiroshige: Great Japanese Prints" is the second local installation from that collection, following the Katsushika Hokusai exhibit. Utagawa Hiroshige began focusing on landscapes in the 1830s after Hokusai's success with "Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji," basing the series "Fifty-Three Stations of the Tokaido Road" on a Japanese coastal thoroughfare. The exhibit also highlights bird and flower prints, and scenes like Kameido Plum Garden and Sudden Shower at Ohashi from "One Hundred Famous Views of Edo," a series on the shogun capital that influenced 19th-century European impressionists like Van Gogh, who copied two of the prints as oil paintings. The exhibit opens at 9:30 a.m. (and runs through Jan. 17) at the Asian Art Museum, Golden Gate Park, Tea Garden & JFK, S.F. Admission is free-$7; call 379-8801.
Trans Mission The Stud's weekly drag showcase and dance party "Trannyshack" hosts a pantheon of gender-fluid entertainers, and at the third annual Miss Trannyshack Pageant, past performers like Tinkle, Lady Sergio, Richard Rockstar, and Peaches Christ will battle it out for the sash and crown denoting this year's brightest talent. The Steve Lady, 1997 titleholder, takes a judge's seat at the pageant, hostessed by "tranny ambassador" Heklina -- regular DJ Robeena Diet Biscuit spins psychedelic mod music. Doors at 9 p.m., show at 11 p.m., at 715 Harrison (at Third Street), S.F. Admission is $10; call 263-0980. In a related note, a multiracial, international group of trans celebrities will discuss the politics of filmmaking and images of the trans community in the media at "With Our Own Eyes: Tranny Fest Transgender and Transgenre Filmmakers Panel." Siobhan Brooks will moderate the panel, which begins at 8:30 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 20, at Good Vibrations, 1210 Valencia (at 23rd Street), S.F. Admission is free; call 974-8980. For more on this week's Tranny Film Fest, see Gary Morris' "Zoom Lens"box in our film listings.
Talk of the Town What to expect from a post-Tina New Yorker is among the issues waiting to be addressed when newly anointed Editor David Remnick speaks at the Herb Caen/San Francisco Chronicle Lecture Series. A 10-year veteran of the Washington Post, Remnick has already worked for the venerable literary magazine as a writer; his many New Yorker pieces have been compiled into a book, The Devil Problem. And even though he's on the other side of the editorial fence now, Remnick is still writing: Excerpts from his new book King of the World: Muhammad Ali & the Rise of an American Hero recently appeared in the magazine. Which leads us to ask a few additional questions: How does he find time to write and edit? Should we anticipate less celebrity dross and more sports reporting? Remnick speaks at 8 p.m. in Zellerbach Hall, Bancroft & Telegraph, UC Berkeley campus. Admission is $3-7.50; call (510) 642-9988.
Life's Work Guggenheim fellow Tillie Olsen, who began her writing life with the Young People's Socialist League, parlayed a series of interruptions to her literary career into material reflecting a lifelong interest in labor and feminist issues. After she dropped out of high school, the Nebraska-born daughter of Russian immigrants took work ranging from slaughterhouse trimmer and Kelly girl to labor organizer and unionist scribe. She met her husband after moving to San Francisco, where they were arrested for their involvement in a maritime strike; raising and supporting four kids kept Olsen out of writing for the next 20 years. She jumped back in with a night writing class at SFSU, and her stories from that period were collected into Tell Me a Riddle. Olsen will share her stories and selections from that book and Yonnondio: From the Thirties at a fiction reading and discussion beginning at 8 p.m. at Intersection for the Arts, 446 Valencia (at 15th Street), S.F. Admission is $5-7; call 626-3311.