Our critics weigh in on local theatre

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.

A Mother. The mom Olympia Dukakis originates in Constance Congdon's new adaptation of the 1910 Maxim Gorky play Vassa Zheleznovadoesn't exactly smack of sweetness. "I should have smothered you in your crib," she says early on to her oldest son. And although we know this is a comedy, we get the feeling that she means it. Only one generation out of serfdom, this Russian family is already being torn apart by greed. Vassa (a spirited Dukakis) is a frustrated and bullying matriarch, and her apathetic sons (an engaging Reg Rogers and John Keating) contribute nil to the family business. But Vassa and her daughter, Anna (a polished Marcia Pizzo), aren't about to be cheated out of the family's fortune, which, under Russian law, is bequeathed to the men. Thus begins the plotting of some very dirty business, which includes falsified wills, homicidal ploys, and other healthy doses of betrayal. Congdon's version is bitingly funny -- and also provides an interesting feminist viewpoint. Though we don't feel much hope at the end, we do get a better sense of how difficult it is to be a mother. Through June 13 at the Geary Theater, 415 Geary (at Powell), S.F. Tickets are $15-61; call 749-2228 or visit www.act-sfbay.org. (K.M.) Reviewed June 2.

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Not a Genuine Black Man. It's not easy being green, but try being a black kid in San Leandro in the early '70s. When Brian Copeland got there -- just a few months after the Summer of Love, he points out -- it was one of the most viciously racist suburbs in America. Now it's officially the most diverse. "Take that, San Francisco," Copeland chides. He's earned that attitude, not just for going through his hell of growing up, but also for extracting from it such affirmative, hilarious stuff. Copeland's rightfully popular one-man show, recently extended for another few weeks, is wrought from pain and rage, but never really succumbs to bitterness. "Is that black?" he asks, and proves that it is. Some of his best stereotype-busting material doesn't feel especially new, but it does feel good. Besides, it's the stereotypes that have passed their expiration dates: Copeland's title comes from an accusation recently flung at him by a cranky listener who called in to his KGO radio program. This show is his response. With help from declarative lighting and David Ford's direction, Copeland creates an affecting hybrid of the dramatic monologue and the rollicking stand-up act. Through June 26 at the Marsh, 1062 Valencia (at 22nd Street), S.F. Tickets are $15-22; call 826-5750 or visit www.themarsh.org. (J.K.) Reviewed June 2.

Strange Travel Suggestions. Veteran traveler and best-selling author Jeff Greenwald may not be a trained actor, but he is a born storyteller. In his first solo show, he takes us all over the globe (though predominantly to the East) and tells tales of a freedom-fighter-turned-guru in India, Buddhist monks riding the first escalator in Nepal, a "Penis Saddhu" who pays homage to Shiva by performing feats of great strength with his genitals, the Dalai Lama (whom he interviews about Star Trek), and a bizarre homosexual encounter at Burning Man that climaxes in the ejaculation of horchata. His stories vary nightly, but are invariably entertaining, and while many of them have appeared in print, to hear him tell them live adds a new dimension. Greenwald has not only a gift for language, but also a great sense of rhythm and comic timing. The show might speak more to an audience familiar with Nepalese customs, religions of the East, and the random life experiences that one accumulates via immense jet lag, unusual climate conditions, and an inability to drink the local water, but it's accessible to all audiences and is sure to spark a traveling bug of the worst (or best) kind. Through June 9 at the Marsh, 1062 Valencia (at 22nd Street), S.F. Tickets are $15-22 sliding scale; call 826-5750 or visit www.themarsh.org. (K.M.) Reviewed May 19.

A Transylvanian in Silicon Valley. Although capped off with a coda of motivational speech, Silvian Centiu's monologue -- about his clamber from Eastern Bloc anguish to upper-level management at Oracle -- doesn"t carry a moralizing tone. Centiu has had humility beaten into him, but he hasn't been beaten, and that's a story worth telling. He's a natural raconteur, and his best material is in the humbling episodes: dodging bullets on the Romanian border; driving a truckload of blood into Transylvania and not getting the joke; finding out the hard way that the common verbs of his native tongue sound like obscenities in English. To learn our language, he sought tireless talkers and found a great triptych of American culture: trade show, car dealership, courtroom. Whether wading into the undertow of communism or capitalism, Centiu stays buoyant via a highly refined black humor. A Transylvanian is perfectly publishable as it stands, but on the page it would lack the music of Centiu's accent and his shrugging, conversational cadence -- a refreshing rebuke to the writerly affect all too common in bare-stage monologues. Centiu really talks to us, even if he does make us feel guilty about our easy lives. Through June 19 at the Actors Theatre, 533 Sutter (at Powell), S.F. Tickets are $12-24; call 820-3929 or visit www.atransylvanian.com. (J.K.) Reviewed May 19.

Also Playing 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.

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.

"Bourgeois": A rather schizophrenic evening of experimental music, dance, and theater featuring choreographer Joe Landini's 4 Stories, a dance piece reflecting on technology's takeover of modern culture, along with Femmisphere: Songs in the Key of Angst, a "drag cabaret" performance by the inimitable Trauma Flintstone, 8 p.m. Wednesdays, through June 30, $10, 885-4006 (information). Off-Market Theater, 965 Mission (at Fifth St.), 896-6477.

Buddy -- The Buddy Holly Story: Relive Holly's music -- and review his rise and untimely demise -- with this autobiographical musical; Previews, 8 p.m. Wednesday, June 9; 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays, through July 11; $25-$63. Post Street Theatre, 450 Post (at Mason), 321-2900.

Clue: The Play: A farce whodunit echoing both the classic board game and cult film adaptation of same; the audience votes on multiple surprise endings at each show, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, through June 19, $12.50-$16. Dark Room Theater, 2263 Mission (at 18th St.), 401-7987.

"Cut the Cord": An evening of two one-act plays: Immaculate is a drama about the binding ties of two sisters as they confront family demons of abuse, alcohol and unexpected pregnancy; Just One, Maggie uses four actresses to present four different facets of one woman's personality, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, through June 26, $20. Exit Theatre on Taylor, 277 Taylor (at Ellis), 673-3847.

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.

The End: A pre-U.S. tour workshop production of the musical revue about three women who sing about the end of their relationships, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays, through June 26; $20, 861-8972 (reservations). New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness (at Market), 861-8972.

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.

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.

L.E.A.R. (Love, Egos, Alternative Rock): Stuart Bousel's modern-day play about a bored young lady who spices up her lackluster life by starting a chick band, 8 p.m. Thursday, June 10, through Saturday, June 12, $10. New Langton Arts, 1246 Folsom (at Eighth St.), 626-5416.

Master Class: Rita Moreno stars as Maria Callas, the opera diva whose master classes at Juilliard in the 1970s are at the center of this play, through July 18, see www.berkeleyrep.org for a schedule of performances; $10-$55. Berkeley Repertory's Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison (at Shattuck), Berkeley, 510-647-2949.

Not a Genuine Black Man: Brian Copeland's comedy about growing up black in San Leandro in the 1970s, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, through June 26, $15-$22. The Marsh, 1062 Valencia (at 22nd St.), 826-5750.

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.

Southern Baptist Sissies: An exploration into the lives of four Texas gay men raised in the less-than-liberal Baptist church, 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, through July 11; $18-$28. New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness (at Market), 861-8972.

Southern Lights: Lee Brady's drama looks into the romantic dalliances of famous country-and-western singers, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, through July 3, $15. Phoenix Theatre, 414 Mason (at Geary), Suite 601, 989-0023.

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.

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