Encore

Our critics weigh in on local theatre

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.

Dame Edna: Back With a Vengeance. Dame Edna is the Australian actor and artist Barry Humphries' world-famous alter ego, a provincial suburban housewife exalted into a glamorous, imperious, Margaret Thatcherlike superstar. She's the mother-in-law who arrives in a glory of jewelry and pink hair and loving phrases, only to sniff around in your cupboards and pass judgment on your silverware. "I like to look in people's bedside drawers, don't you?" she gossips to a woman recruited from the audience to help toss a salad. "You can learn so much about a person that way." Her show has music, dance, and topical comedy. It's quite pointless. Dame Edna just stands onstage for up to three hours doing whatever she can to deserve your attention, like a late-night television host, the difference being that all of her guests come from the first few rows of seats. Back With a Vengeance borrows material from her last Broadway show, The Royal Tour, and amounts to a victory lap for Edna in the United States; she has nothing new to say this time around. But it hardly matters. Her personality is the art, like Warhol's -- everything else can come or go. Through Oct. 10 at the Curran Theatre, 445 Geary (between Mason and Taylor), S.F. Tickets are $40-72; call 512-7770 or visit www.bestofbroadway-sf.com. (Michael Scott Moore) Reviewed Sept. 22.

Dog Act. "Rozetta Stone's Travelling Vaudeville with Dog Act, currently under contract to the King of China" reads the sign on Rozetta's gypsy wagon, which folds out to become a stage but most of the time looks like an old junk cart hung with eccentric puppets, stamped-tin plates, porcelain figurines, and a burnt rubber Teletubby. Liz Duffy Adams' new play envisions a Mad Maxstyle future in which roving tribes battle for control of what used to be Texas and New England, and regular people are forced to survive as (fairly bad) vaudevillians. The language is thick with wannabe-Joycean puns and tinges of hip hop slang. ("The sea," says Rozetta. "It the big wet. ... It smell like a come-on meeting a want-to." Or, waxing faux-nostalgic for China, which she's never seen, "Who-all has not heard of that wonderacity?") In spite of a powerful effort by Beth Donohue as Rozetta, as well as C. Dianne Manning as a mysterious stranger who recognizes Dog Act from a more civilized time, the characters never rise above their forced eccentricities. Dog Act is all style and no drama, full of miraculous toys like a three-string guitar made from a crutch or a resonant xylophone made of Styrofoam and wrenches -- still a plaything more than a play. Through Oct. 10 at the Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby (at Martin Luther King), Berkeley. Tickets are $20; call (510) 841-6500 or visit www.shotgunplayers.org. (Michael Scott Moore) Reviewed Sept. 15.

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.

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