Our critics weigh in on local theater

Emma. In the days before sitting around watching MTV and getting high, a group of young friends pass an afternoon in an attic, acting out the tale of English literature's favorite forgivably flawed matchmaker, Emma Woodhouse. Michael Fry's metatheatrical adaptation of the Jane Austen novel is as lively as its source, and as cleverly calibrated. But don't be intimidated by that flowchart in the program; it's just there to help make sense of the play's 20 characters, evenly divvied up among five hardworking actors. What's impressive about this production isn't the precision of its gear work; it's how agreeably the ensemble expresses Fry's comparison between the delights of matchmaking and those of playmaking. The cast members enjoy themselves and one another, and their game takes on, in the best possible way, what someone calls "an air of foppery and nonsense." It's an actors' show, and director Jeffrey Bihr, who's put in plenty of stage time himself over the years, seems like an actors' director. In the title role, Lauren Grace is vital and sympathetic, an easy contender for the pantheon of memorable Emmas (Silverstone, Paltrow). The others deserve compliments, too: Never does it seem that anyone should be playing someone else's role. They all spend most of the show onstage, and therefore aren't immune to momentary energy lulls. But the intimacy of the Aurora seals off most drafts of audience distraction; here Emma and friends have the perfect space in which to get their loves untangled. Through Dec. 19 at the Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison (at Shattuck), Berkeley. Tickets are $28-35; call (510) 843-4822 or visit www.auroratheatre.org. (Jonathan Kiefer) Reviewed Dec. 1.

Oy Vey in a Manger. "Trampolina, you can't go around making comments about Hitler like that," says Winnie, the mainstay of the Kinsey Sicks, San Francisco's homegrown a-cappella-group-in-drag. "Imagine the Führer." [Groans from the audience.] Winnie and friends wait for guests to come to their holiday party, which might be a Hanukkah celebration but includes a Christmas tree, Jesus schmaltz, and a hay-filled manger in the middle of the room. Winnie and Rachel are Jewish, you see, Trampolina and Trixie are goyim, and the cultural divide provides about two hours' worth of tasteless puns. If the group never interrupted its appalling script with smooth, crisply sung barbershop harmonies, Oy Vey in a Manger would be hard to take, but some of the songs are lovely. There's a Jewish "Macarena," a "Jingle Bells" about gays in the military, an "O Holy Night" about filming porn, and a delightfully perverted thing called "A Lay in a Manger" sung by Trixie (Jeff Manabat) as a torchy ballad. Some songs are unfortunate -- like "Where the Goys Are" and "Anal Warts" (sung to "Edelweiss") -- but Irwin Keller, as Winnie, makes it all worthwhile with an improbably pretty love ballad in Yiddish. Through Dec. 31 at the New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness (at Market), S.F. Tickets are $25-35; call 861-8972 or visit www.nctcsf.org. (Michael Scott Moore) Reviewed Dec. 8.

Polk County. Zora Neale Hurston wrote Polk County in 1944, in collaboration with a white woman named Dorothy Waring. It's an honest-to-God blues musical, American to the bone, which may be one reason no one in New York has produced it yet. This new edit by Cathy Madison and Kyle Donnelly premiered at the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., two years ago, to rave reviews, but the script still has scars from what must have been a bad argument between Waring and Hurston -- a tension between showy silliness and drama, between Broadway and the blues. The songs here are all terrific, from traditional numbers like "Jesus Gonna Make Up My Dyin' Bed" to dirty originals like "Lick It Like That," by Chic Street Man, the show's music director. And the brilliantly talented cast can play its own live music. As a revue of homegrown American songs the show deserves a nice, long Broadway run -- but it's not what it could be. What starts as a promising drama of self-discovery in a Florida sawmill camp becomes an excuse to shove as much (admittedly great) music into the performance as possible. Through Jan. 9 at the Berkeley Rep's Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison (at Shattuck), Berkeley. Tickets are $25-60; call (510) 647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org. (Michael Scott Moore) Reviewed Dec. 8.

Pugilist Specialist. The Berkeley-based Riot Group has been hiding from local audiences for the last few years, not just in La Val's Subterranean Theatre, but also in New York, London, and the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Pugilist Specialist is the group's latest Edinburgh triumph, a stark but potent story of four Marines on a covert mission to assassinate a political leader not completely unlike Saddam Hussein. (They call their target "The Bearded Lady," because of his facial hair, or "Big 'Stache.") The suspense derives not from their mission so much as from the social fault lines running through the group. In clipped, cold language, watching the audience instead of one another, Lt. Emma Stein, Lt. Travis Freud, Lt. Studdard, and Col. Johns argue about everything from women in the military to the meaning of the war. "Shouldn't the wisdom and logic of any mission," asks Stein, who's typically the most by-the-book soldier onstage, "be self-evident?" A black surveillance mike hangs eerily over every scene. Drew Friedman and Stephanie Viola are crisp and precise as Studdard and Stein; playwright Adriano Shaplin balances them as the loose, obnoxious Freud; and Paul Schnabel's gray-crewcut Johns is the wavering voice of experience. None of it feels like the product of an anti-war playwright just emerged from a Berkeley graduate program (as Shaplin has). Rather, it's a brief, skillful, stylized protest against self-sabotage in the Middle East. Through Dec. 19 at the Magic Theatre, Fort Mason Center, Building D, Marina & Buchanan, S.F. Tickets are $15-34; call 441-8822 or visit www.magictheatre.org. (Michael Scott Moore) Reviewed Dec. 8.

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