Our critics weigh in on local theatre

"100 Years of Political Theatre, Series A." Eastenders' fifth annual One-Act Festival has a political theme this year. The troupe offers a century's worth of dissident playwriting, from early Soviet Russia through South Africa to the present-day United States. But the first thing to point out about The Bedbug -- a satire by Vladimir Mayakovsky that kicks things off in "Series A" (there are three "series," or nights, to choose from) -- is that it's not a one-act: It has an intermission. As a satire of communist Russia it's also not very funny. A true-believing Soviet bureaucrat in 1929 falls into a deep freeze and wakes up 50 years later, in a 1979 imagined by Mayakovsky to be sterile and almost robotic, where functionaries vote after being plugged in. Compared to these hollow men, the bureaucrat, Prisypkin, resembles Dean Martin after a bender. He wears a rumpled tuxedo -- loose bow tie, untucked shirt, infested with a still-living bedbug -- and likes to drink and smoke. The 1979 Russians put him in a zoo as a specimen of "bourgeois man." The concept is funny, but director Susan Evans should have cut the script radically for a one-act festival. Her cast overplays, diluting all the humor in a mess of forced vehemence and exaggerated gestures, and a lot of the satire is dated. The play exhausts the audience for The Informer, a one-act by Bertolt Brecht from his longer Fear and Misery in the Third Reich. Two German parents, with a portrait of Hitler on the wall, worry that their son has reported them to the Hitler Youth for expressing "reckless" opinions. The acting here is better; Jeff Thompson and Suzan A. Kendall don't have to force their lines, and director Charles E. Polly captures the Germans' ennui. But after Mayakovsky we're not in the mood. "Series A" runs through Sept. 24 at the Eureka Theatre, 215 Jackson (at Front), S.F. Tickets are $10-20; call (510) 568-4118 or visit www.eastenders.org. (Michael Scott Moore) Reviewed Sept. 8.

"100 Years of Political Theatre, Series B." Eastenders' rotating festival of one-acts revives political theater from (mostly) the 20th century. "Series B," which alternates with "Series A" and "Series C," consists of '70s-era plays by Athol Fugard and Vaclav Havel. Statements After an Arrest Under the Immorality Act is a searing but overlong piece about a white South African woman and her black lover, who get arrested midcoitus by government goons with flashlights and dogs. I love Fugard, but this play doesn't hold up in a time and place where cross-racial sex is legal. Too much of the script relies on the context of apartheid for its power; in spite of strong performances from Reg Clay and Craig Souza, the speeches are in dire need of editing. Audience, by Havel, is better. It's one of his famous "Vanek" plays, about a Havel alter ego, who in this case has lost his official (communist) position as a playwright. He has to work in a brewery, and the cranky lager-lout who calls himself Vanek's boss isn't sure what to say to an underling with such elegant and beautiful actress friends. So he resorts to offering a) advice, b) loud commonplaces, c) a lot of beer, and d) loutish tips on playwriting. Souza is a fine, blank-faced Vanek and John Hutchinson is hilariously deadpan as the unstable Brewmaster. Robert A. Zick Jr. has directed the piece with a clean sense of absurdist timing. All the one-acts feel long for the festival format, but I should mention that "Series C," which we can't review because of timing, includes an up-to-date monologue by Naomi Wallace -- narrated by an Iraqi who fought in the first Gulf War. "Series B" runs through Sept. 25 at the Eureka Theatre, 215 Jackson (at Front), S.F. Tickets are $10-20; call (510) 568-4118 or visit www.eastenders.org. (Michael Scott Moore) Reviewed Sept. 15.

The Black Rider: The Casting of the Magic Bullets. Director Robert Wilson's "pop opera" deals with a German clerk who makes a pact with a diabolical Black Rider for seven magic bullets. The first six go anywhere the shooter aims; the seventh belongs to the devil. On his wedding day our hero gleefully aims at a bird in a tree, to prove himself as a marksman, but the devil redirects bullet No. 7 into the heart of the bride. On this bare frame Wilson hangs a German expressionist dream that comes alive in the score by Tom Waits more than in the dialogue by William S. Burroughs (who contributed his own dark legend of a wayward bullet). Marianne Faithfull, as the Black Rider, has a mannish, lyrical, whiskey-coarse voice that serves beautifully on songs like "Just the Right Bullets" and "The Last Rose of Summer." Hearing her sing those might be worth the price of admission alone, but other cast members, especially Matt McGrath, do well with the important ballads. Wilson's best shows are spacious dreams, and The Black Rider creates a dark German forest where your imagination can stand up, walk around, and find itself pleasantly lost. Through Oct. 10 at the Geary Theater, 415 Geary (at Mason), S.F. Tickets are $25-80; call 749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org. (Michael Scott Moore) Reviewed Sept. 8.

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