Our critics weigh in on local theatre

"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.

Drifting Elegant. Stephen Belber's new drama belongs to the Magic Theatre's "Hot House" cycle of three fresh plays, performed in repertory with Relativity (by Cassandra Medley) and The 13 Hallucinations of Julio Rivera (by Stephen R. Culp). Drifting Elegant deals with rape, race, and conscience. Nate, a freelance reporter, takes an assignment to profile an accused rapist just released from prison. One problem: Nate knew the victim. An African-American reporter for the same paper, Elizabeth, accused the prisoner of rape, then exonerated him before dying of cancer. Nate not only knew Elizabeth -- they had a brief affair. Now he proposes to write a balanced piece about the man she sent to jail. Is he biased? Yes. Does he interview the guy anyway? Yes. Victor Saad, the accused, is tight-lipped at first, but then reverses himself and starts to intrude on Nate"s shambling, unstable life. Darren Bridgett does nice work as Nate, who never knows when to shut up, and Harry Dillon is an effectively stoic Victor, showing up most of Nate's folly. Barbara Pitts also does well enough as Jen, Nate's wife, who flirts with a slick African-American friend of theirs, Renny (Michael Gene Sullivan). But Jen in particular seems undeveloped: She talks too much like her husband, and the concept of the play seems to rest on one forced speech of hers at the end. Nate's deepest, unspoken motivation for writing about Victor in the first place -- unabsolved guilt over Elizabeth -- also feels dodgy. Drifting Elegant still isn"t free of its own ideas; it may need more time in the hothouse. Through June 20 at the Magic Theatre, Fort Mason Center, Building D, Marina & Buchanan, S.F. Tickets are $25; call 441-8822 or visit www.magictheatre.org. (M.S.M.) Reviewed May 12.

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 Mystery of Irma Vep.
Kevin Berne
The Mystery of Irma Vep.

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The Mystery of Irma Vep. The opening lines -- pious Victorian talk about rain -- were lifted whole from Ibsen's Ghosts, which the Berkeley Rep mounted in February. For his "penny dreadful" about a werewolf, an amateur Egyptologist, and a mysterious dead wife named Irma Vep, Charles Ludlam also borrowed from Oscar Wilde and Wuthering Heights and just about any Victorian source held in reverence by your average Berkeley Rep subscriber. The result is a near-indestructible camp script: I doubt it's possible to perform a bad Irma Vep. New York actors Arnie Burton and Erik Steele do strong work here, rotating in and out of eight roles. The chirpily optimistic Lady Enid (Burton) marries Lord Edgar Hillcrest (Steele) and comes to his manor with no notion of why things look so glum. But soon the snobbish maid Jane Twisden (Steele) and the wretchedly hairy manservant Nicodemus Underwood (Burton) lead Lady Enid to a horrific discovery. Les Waters directs the show cleanly but with no innovation; a production at the New Conservatory two years ago was funnier and more inventive. (The sound of ripping Velcro whenever the New Conservatory actors disappeared to change costumes still makes me laugh to remember.) The Lady Enid-Lord Edgar scenes are somehow more solid than the banter between Jane and Nicodemus, but Lord Edgar's trip to Egypt in Act 2 would be hard to improve on. Burton is particularly good as the blasé, opinionated, and highly homosexual Egyptian guide, Alcazar, who smokes a cigarette even inside an ancient tomb. There's been no lack of Irma Veps in San Francisco during the last five years, so I suspect Berkeley Rep mounted this one mainly to follow up Ghosts -- which isn't a bad joke in itself. Through May 23 at the Berkeley Rep's Thrust Stage, 2025 Addison (at Shattuck), S.F. Tickets are $20-55; call (510) 647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org. (M.S.M.) Reviewed May 12.

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