Our critics weigh in on local theatre

Betrayal. Harold Pinter's simple drama of adultery, told backward for the simplest of reasons, shows a love triangle from its last bitter drink in a bar to its first forbidden kiss. A literary agent named Jerry carries on for seven years with his best friend's wife, Emma. The friend, Robert, runs a publishing house in London. Charles Shaw Robinson plays a composed, wounded Robert, who knows about the affair and observes his wife and pal misbehaving with a blend of detachment and pain. The show is brief and brutal, less than 90 minutes long, and you watch the scenes in reverse with some of Robert's fascination, like a witness to a train wreck. Through July 25 at the Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison (at Shattuck), Berkeley. Tickets are $34-36; call (510) 843-4822 or visit www.auroratheatre.org. (Michael Scott Moore) Reviewed July 7.

The Complete History of America (Abridged). The Reduced Shakespeare Company started its Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) as a modest joke at a Renaissance Faire more than 20 years ago. The intervening decades have spawned not just TV shows and world tours, but also spinoffs like All the Great Books (Abridged) and Western Civilization: The Complete Musical (Abridged). Such wild success may lead you to think The Complete History of America (Abridged) is very funny. But in the hands of the Free Range Theatre Company -- a local outfit that decided to produce Reduced Shakespeare's script -- the show comes off as a weak idea, or an extended gag with no idea at all. Running through "50,000 years of American history" in under two hours needs more vision than a bunch of actors doing funny things with water pistols. We get a song about Amerigo Vespucci, the mapmaker, set to the Gilligan's Island theme; a radio western that manages to involve both World War II and FDR; a long detour into film noir, featuring a detective who wanders from the 1950s into modern-day Washington, D.C. ("Maternity ward bombings?" the cynical dick says to a cop. "You got the wrong guy. You can't connect me to the baby boom"). The show peaks with a Lewis & Clark skit played as a vaudeville comedy routine, with the explorers in buckskin making lewd jokes about Sacagawea. But those jokes are meant to be lame, and the rest of the performance -- no one seems to have noticed -- is no better. Through July 17 at Next Stage, 1620 Gough (at Bush), S.F. Tickets are $13.50; call 267-7661. (Michael Scott Moore) Reviewed July 7.

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 Nov. 21 at the Orpheum Theatre, 1182 Market (at Eighth Street), S.F. Tickets are $26-160; call 512-7770 or visit www.bestofbroadway-sf.com. (Michael Scott Moore) Reviewed Feb. 11.

Master Class. One reason people use the word "diva" too often nowadays is that the notion of great women being defined by great performances has made great fodder for modern dramatists. Not far beneath Billy Wilder's Sunset Blvd., the pinnacle of diva dramaturgy, is Terrence McNally's Tony Award-winning 1996 play Master Class. The subject here, in a command performance by Rita Moreno, is the aching soul of superstar Maria Callas. But the show is also a valentine to the opera, beautiful bitch that she is. McNally knows how to orchestrate for human instruments. His play is agreeably operatic, and director Moisés Kaufman planes the lines of its shapely form with affection. Based on classes Callas taught at Juilliard in the early '70s, the action is an imparting of her earned wisdom. She's that dazzling -- the brutal teacher we've all had or wanted. Among the three students, strong singers all, Sherry Boone's Sharon is the real crowd-pleaser; the arc of her creative process is the most impressive and the most human. Mark Wedland's design and David Lander's lighting make good use of a deep, high-ceilinged stage to reveal a few stirring glimpses of grandeur. And Moreno, firmly rooted and lifting her face to gather the light, makes a big room feel small. "The real world.' Brutal expression, brutal place," she declares as Callas, edifying performers everywhere. Through July 25 at the Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison (at Shattuck), Berkeley. Tickets are $20-55; call (510) 647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org. (Jonathan Kiefer) Reviewed June 9.

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