Dr. Faustus.David Mamet reduces the original Faust legend to its bare elements. There's the philosopher, Faustus, who's finished an abstruse magnum opus and looks forward to glory and fame. There's his Wife (a non-character), his Son (mostly offstage), a Friend who nudges Faustus toward the good, and a devilish Magus who tempts him the other way by taunting his overblown pride. The story unfolds in an unspecific time and place, until the second act, when Faustus goes to hell. The characters also speak a stilted, high-flown, willfully obscure English. You might say the language itself is a puzzle, like the philosopher's magnum opus -- a cryptogram that resists light, instead of shedding it. God knows language can do that, and watching a playwright explore the vagaries and limits of his own medium should be fascinating. But the underlying drama feels as stiff as the dialogue. David Rasche's wooden, stumbling performance as Faustus resists not just clarity and light, but also interest in the story. Through April 18 at the Magic Theatre, Fort Mason Center, Building D, Marina & Buchanan, S.F. Tickets are $34-53; call 441-8822 or visit www.magictheatre.org. Reviewed March 17.
Ghosts. By now you may have heard a rumor that California Shakespeare Theater director Jonathan Moscone's production of Ghosts at Berkeley Rep is a thing of beauty. The rumor happens to be true. Ibsen's tragedy about Helene Alving and her louche son Osvald rings effortlessly from the stage with Ellen McLaughlin and Davis Duffield in the leading roles. McLaughlin plays the widow Helene with a chirping pride, dodging the tired morality of Pastor Manders (James Carpenter) with brisk wit and a dash of philosophy until Osvald tries to marry his half-sister. Emily Ackerman is Helene's amusingly well-behaved (but not quite proper) servant, Regina Engstrand; Brian Keith Russell plays Regina's supposed father. All the acting is first rate, and Moscone's direction is plain and simple. I don't know how long it's been since I've watched an old-fashioned verbal drama work so well, with no special effects or Masterpiece Theatre flourishes. Neil Patel helps with his austere set, bathed in icy Scandinavian light by Scott Zielinski. Patel's set draws no attention to itself until it needs to, in the second act, and then it performs as brilliantly as the cast. "All those years of marriage," Pastor Manders says to Helene, incredulously, "were nothing but wallpaper over an abyss" -- which Ibsen, Moscone, and Patel sweep away with grace and flair. Through April 11 at the Berkeley Rep's Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison (at Shattuck), S.F. Tickets are $10-55; call (510) 647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org. Reviewed March 17.
The Lion King. How do you turn a decent cartoon about African wildlife into a lame Broadway musical? 1) Puzzle carefully about the problem of costumes and sets. Pour millions of dollars and hours of mental energy into making your actors look like lions, hyenas, elephants, wildebeests, giraffes, and birds. Solve the problem brilliantly. Hire Julie Taymor to design the magnificent costumes and masks (and to direct the show). Hire Garth Fagan to choreograph elegant, exciting, Afro-Caribbean dance routines. Make sure Donald Holder lights the stage with an eloquent feeling for African distances and sunshine. In general make the show a visual feast. Then, 2) squint in confusion at the script, and 3) carve it up to make room for appalling songs by Tim Rice and Elton John. You'll have a profitable bunch of nonsense with more than one God-soaked number that sounds indistinguishable from bad Whitney Houston. The only cast member who can transcend this mess and give a stirring performance is Thandazile Soni, as Rafiki the monkey shaman, who gets to sing songs like "Nants" Ingonyama," by Lebo M, and other African chants originated by Tsidii Le Loka on Broadway. Bob Bouchard is also funny as Pumbaa the warthog, and Derek Smith plays a perfectly arrogant, sinister Scar, the pretender lion king. Otherwise the show is forced and childish. Adults looking for good theater will be happier when the performers dance instead of trying to act. Through Sept. 5 at the Orpheum Theatre, 1182 Market (at Eighth Street), S.F. Tickets are $26-160; call 512-7770 or visit www.bestofbroadway-sf.com. Reviewed Feb. 11.
The Underbelly Diaries. Strange that it should take a Canadian to make San Francisco audiences squirm again, but The Underbelly Diaries may be the most frank and disgusting show on a local stage this season. Aaron Berg is an ex-bodybuilder who shifted one day from weightlifting to paid masturbation, then moved on to stripping and other adventures in the Ontario skin trade. He tells about his first job jerking off in front of an Austrian homosexual, for $150, with a black bodybuilder named "Hot Chocolate" (who advises him, "For that kinda shit, next time -- $200"). He talks about his work as a rent boy for horrid, husband-hating rich women. And he gives a hilarious rant about the side effects of anabolic steroids (baldness, back hair, acne, sterility, impotence, flashes of anger and sadness). Berg works up to fugues of intense comedy, and he delivers a cut, well-crafted monologue. His male voices are also seamless. This is a major confessional masquerading as stand-up comedy, but it doesn't yet work as a fully developed solo show because Berg is so overcontrolled. He tends to muscle through lame punch lines, ignore the moods of his audience, and go in for aggressively shocking material at the expense of more human stuff, like his romantic life (if any) or his Jewishness. One joke suggests acres of unexplored territory. Berg imagines his grandfather learning about his exploits: "Did ya hear about the nice Jewish boy who looks like a neo-Nazi and threw come at an Austrian queer with a schvartze, no less?" Grandpa wants to know. In the end, really, we don"t. Through April 3 at Exit Stage Left, 156 Eddy (between Mason and Taylor), S.F. Tickets are $15; call 819-2036 or visit www.sffringe.org. Reviewed March 24.