Encore

Our critics weigh in on local theatre

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 Awardwinning 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.

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 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 July 24 at the Marsh, 1062 Valencia (at 22nd Street), S.F. Tickets are $15-22; call 826-5750 or visit www.themarsh.org. (Jonathan Kiefer) Reviewed June 2.

Orpheus Descending. One of Tennessee Williams' great but problematic tragedies is a Southern Gothic featuring a wandering blues musician, Valentine Xavier. Val wears a snakeskin coat and carries a guitar inscribed by singers such as Blind Lemon Jefferson and Bessie Smith. He wants to abandon his old life of juke joints and cheap women, so he accepts a straight job at the Torrance Mercantile Store in an unnamed small town, where his sheer physical beauty upsets the sheriff, the local biddies, and the sick tyrant Jabe Torrance. It also entices Mrs. Torrance, and her and Val's halting love affair makes a fine, slow-moving melodrama. Brando played Val in a movie version, The Fugitive Kind, which also moved at a sluggish pace. Jean Shelton's revival at the Actors Theatre, unfortunately, solves none of the pacing problems. In spite of a well-cast group and a vivid set by Scott Agar Jaicks, there's no urgency to the show. Alex Garcia has the right blank, smoldering intensity as Val; Nadia Tarzi has the right olive skin and vague accent for Lady Torrance, who's fervid and Italian; Niki Yapo is appropriately rebellious and frail as Carol, who remembers Val from his previous life. But they all seem to talk past each other. Only Padma Moyer and Delinda Dane, as two of the local biddies, and John Krause, as Jabe, manage to infect the performance with life of their own. Otherwise the actors seem to wait for a passion that never quite arrives. Through Aug. 28 at the Actors Theatre of San Francisco, 533 Sutter (between Powell and Mason), S.F. Tickets are $10-25; call 296-9179 or visit www.actorstheatresf.org. (Michael Scott Moore) Reviewed July 14.

Sacrament! Yes, Dave Eggers has written a play, too. Get over it. Even better: See it, and come out saying, "Oh yeah, I like Eggers." In collaboration with Campo Santo and director Kent Nicholson, the writer seems reinvigorated by the immediacy of theater. The tone is familiar: equal parts goofiness and gravitas, with results greater than the sum of their parts. The aesthetic is familiar as well: a handsome production, clean, controlled, and elegant in a pared-down way. And, of course, the material is familiar (from Eggers' novel You Shall Know Our Velocity!): Two young men, bearing a financial windfall and a friend's death, travel the world on impulse, grieving and giving away money. Should be easy enough. But, as Will (Sean San José) observes, "It's always so fucking complicated!" Identity, both civic and personal, is a creative act: It demands the effort of self-reflection, of converting memory into inspiration, yet the actors here pull it off. Danny Wolohan, as Hand, makes great, simple choices and is impossible not to like. He and San José have fine support from Tina Marie Murray and Michael Torres. If the cast's headlong charges into the text sometimes seem memorized beyond the prospect of discovery (and read like a phobia of stillness), it might be considered a thematic preoccupation. To discover mystery is an artist's privilege and his task, and Eggers won't let that opportunity be squandered. The show beseeches you to stay open above all; it'll leave you feeling at once wrung-out and ravenous. Through Aug. 8 at Intersection for the Arts, 446 Valencia (between 15th and 16th streets), S.F. Tickets are $9-15; call 626-3311 or visit www.theintersection.org. (Jonathan Kiefer) Reviewed June 9.

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