Our critics weigh in on local theatre

Antigone Falun Gong. Local playwright Cherylene Lee's new play shows a peaceable Falun Gong practitioner named "A" resisting the Chinese government after it jails (and possibly kills) her brother. She's identified with Antigone, the young Greek rebel against Creon's arbitrary rule, from Sophocles' original tale. Director David Furumoto has framed and paced his story well, but the strongest scenes fall between the dialogue, when the actors and dancers tell background stories with speechless movement derived from martial arts and Falun Gong itself (it's related to tai chi). Combat scenes, acts of self-torture, even a reference to the Tiananmen Square showdown between a student and a tank play out against keening flute and thundering drums. Otherwise the play feels like well-intentioned propaganda; Lee links her story too closely with Sophocles' and drains its own inherent power. Through May 16 at the Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison (at Shattuck), Berkeley. Tickets are $34-40; call (510) 843-4822 or visit www.auroratheatre.org. (M.S.M.) Reviewed May 5.

"Bourgeois." When paired with the recent shutdown of the Mission District performance space Spanganga, the loss of SOMA's tiny-but-tough Venue 9 seems extra poignant. But Venue 9 is going out in style with "Bourgeois," a rather schizophrenic evening of experimental music, dance, and theater, including choreographer Joe Landini's 4 Stories, which reflects on technology's takeover of modern culture, along with Femmisphere: Songs in the Key of Angst, a "drag cabaret" by the inimitable Trauma Flintstone (whom you might recognize from her scenery-chewing celebrity-impersonator work in Christmas With the Crawfords). Every Wednesday in May at Venue 9, 252 Ninth St. (at Folsom), S.F. Admission is $10; call 885-4006. (J.S.) Reviewed May 5.

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. (M.S.M.) Reviewed Feb. 11.

The Smell of the Kill. In a just world, this savage little comedy about suburban wives would be banned. Nicky, Debra, and Molly chat with Updike-y realism in an upscale kitchen about their marriages, careers, and near-middle-aged disappointments, while their apelike husbands howl nonsense and random abuse from the living room (they're prerecorded). We learn that Nicky loathes her man, who's been accused of embezzlement. Molly hates hers for darker reasons, but feels too insecure to leave. Only Debra claims to feel satisfied, but she's in denial about her guy's girlfriend. While the trio chats over glasses of pinot grigio and fixes a whipped-cream-topped dessert, the men lumber down to the basement and trap themselves in a meat locker. The rest of Michele Lowe's play shows the women debating whether to let them freeze. If Lowe had reversed her genders to depict three realistic men wondering whether to snuff their faceless hysterical wives, her career would have been ended by a PC firing squad, but she pulls off her conceit with so much easy wit that we won't insist on equal treatment. Strong and balanced performances from Stacy Ross, Susi Damilano, and Zehra Berkman, not to mention a vivid set by Bill English, make this production a small (75-minute) delicacy. Through May 15 at the Playhouse, 536 Sutter (between Powell and Mason), S.F. Tickets are $30; call 677-9596 or visit www.sfplayhouse.com. (M.S.M.) Reviewed May 5.

Also Playing

Acis and Galatea: Berkeley Opera takes on Handel's classic tale of the shepherd Acis who is transformed into a fountain by his beloved sea nymph Galatea, 8 p.m. Wednesday, May 12, and Friday, May 14, 2 p.m. Sunday, May 16; $10-$40, 510-841-1903 (information). Julia Morgan Center for the Arts, 2640 College (at Derby), Berkeley, 510-845-8542.

After the Fall: Actors Theatre's revamp of Arthur Miller's autobiographical play about a lawyer who analyzes his life's successes and failures, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays, through May 22; $5-$20. Actors Theatre San Francisco, 533 Sutter (at Powell), 296-9179.

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