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Our critics weigh in on local theatre

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"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. 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.

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. Thursday, May 20, through Saturday, May 22; $5-$20. Actors Theatre San Francisco, 533 Sutter (at Powell), 296-9179.

Apocrypha: Ignacio Zuleta's new play looks at the connection between legendary ladies Clytemnestra and Helen of Troy, 8 p.m. Fridays-Sundays, through May 29, $15. Phoenix Theatre, 414 Mason (at Geary), Suite 601, 989-0023.

Are We Almost There?: Morris Bobrow's rollicking, long-running musical comedy about the trials and tribulations of travel, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, $20-$22. Shelton Theater, 533 Sutter (at Powell), 433-3040.

BATS: Sunday Players: Each week Bay Area Theatresports players pit their improv work against all comers as the audience votes them off one by one until the winner stands alone on the stage, 8 p.m. Sundays, $8, 474-6776 (information). Fort Mason, Bldg. B, Marina & Buchanan.

Beach Blanket Babylon: This North Beach perennial features crazy hats, media personality caricatures, a splash of romance, and little substance, 8 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 7 and 10 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 3 and 7 p.m. Sundays, $25-$65. Club Fugazi, 678 Green (at Powell), 421-4222.

Dirty Blonde: Claudia Shear's comedy follows the exploits of Mae West and two of her many lovers, 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, through June 26; $10-$25. New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness (at Market), 861-8972.

Dybbuk: The Traveling Jewish Theatre company's adaptation of the Yiddish theater classic story of a love affair so powerful not even death can destroy it, 8 p.m. Thursday, May 20, through Saturday, May 22, 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday, May 23; $18-$30. Traveling Jewish Theatre, 470 Florida (at Mariposa), 285-8282.

Hairspray: A zaftig girl finds love, acceptance, and her dancing chops in this musical comedy, through July 3, $36.50-$81, see bestofbroadway-sf.com for a schedule of performances. Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor (at Market), 512-7770.

"The Hot House": The world premieres of three new plays: The 13 Hallucinations of Julio Rivera by Stephen R. Culp, Drifting Elegant by Stephen Belber, and Relativity by Cassandra Medley, through June 20, $24-$38, see www.magictheatre.org for showtimes. Magic Theatre, Fort Mason, Bldg. D, Marina & Buchanan, 441-8822.

I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change: Joe DiPietro and Jimmy Roberts' original comic musical examines our embarrassing inner notions on relationships, 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 5 and 9 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays, through Sept. 30; $35-$55. Marines Memorial Theater, 609 Sutter (at Mason), 877-771-6900.

The Importance of Being Earnest: The Asian American Theater Company's adaptation of Oscar Wilde's classic adapts its language to that of modern San Francisco, 8 p.m. Fridays, 8 and 10 p.m. Saturdays, through May 29; $15-$35. Off-Market Theater, 965 Mission (at Fifth St.), 896-6477.

Jitney: Omega Theatre Works presentation of August Wilson's classic '70s work about urban renewal's effects on neighborhood cab drivers, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 4 p.m. Sundays, through May 29; $20, 510-547-4880 (information). Egypt Theater, 5306 Foothill, Oakland, 510-777-1707.

Money & Run: A sendup of action/adventure shows with a protagonist who attempts to take down Big Momma Bob's evil empire while battling ninjas, nuns, and narcs, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, through June 5, $10-$15. La Val's Subterranean Theater, 1834 Euclid (at Hearst), Berkeley, 510-234-6046.

"The Pinter/Albee Duet": This double bill of two one-acts by famous playwrights includes Pinter's The Collection and Albee's The Zoo Story, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays, through May 30; $15-$30. Theatre Rhinoceros, 2926 16th St. (at South Van Ness), 861-5079.

"Pocket Chekhov": Expression Theater Ensemble presents two Anton Chekhov farces in one evening -- The Brute and A Marriage Proposal, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, through May 29; free-$15. San Francisco Performing Arts Library & Museum, 401 Van Ness (at McAllister), 255-4800.

San Francisco Improv Festival: Twelve weeks, hundreds of performances in this all-impromptu-theater extravaganza, through June 26, see www.sfimprovcooperative.com for a schedule of events. Multiple locations.

Strange Travel Suggestions: Inveterate traveler Jeff Greenwald spins tales of his worldwide journeys, 8 p.m. Wednesdays, through May 26, $15-$22. The Marsh, 1062 Valencia (at 22nd St.), 826-5750.

Teatro ZinZanni: A blend of European cabaret, circus arts, and original music with a five-course gourmet dinner, in an open-ended run, 6 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 5 p.m. Sundays; $99-$125, 438-2668 (tickets), www.zinzanni.org. Pier 29, Embarcadero (at Battery), 273-1620.

A Transylvanian in Silicon Valley: Romanian expatriate Silvian Centiu tells the remarkable comic story of how he transformed himself into a Silicon Valley programmer, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, through June 19; $20, 820-3929 (information). Actors" Theatre Second Stage, 533 Sutter (at Powell).

"Women in Jewish Theater: Staged Readings of New Plays": Plays by Jewish women are given the spotlight in this three-week series of staged readings, 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, May 19, $10-$12, 292-1233 (information). Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, 3200 California (at Presidio), 292-1200.

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