Our critics weigh in on local theater

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Playing a convincing nut is one of the biggest challenges facing an actor. Like being drunk onstage without falling over, the thespian wishing to personify madness in a persuasive way must avoid clichés such as clucking like a chicken or flinging wildflowers out into the audience (unless, of course, the stage directions specifically call for this kind of thing). The cast members of the Actors Theatre/OTM production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest understand this, and as a result, the white and green surfaces that surround them stop looking like bits of carefully constructed stage scenery and start resembling the forbidding walls of a state mental hospital. Dale Wasserman's play, based on Ken Kesey's 1962 novel of the same title (and subsequently developed into an Oscar-winning 1975 movie starring Jack Nicholson), tells the story of how Randle Patrick McMurphy, a convicted felon who contrives to get himself sent to a mental institution as a way of avoiding hard labor, impacts the lives of his fellow asylum inmates. Christian Phillips gives an explosive performance as McMurphy, but the true power of this engrossing production derives from the assorted catatonics, depressives, and other dysfunctional souls who litter the ward like bits of swirling trash. From Michael Speyser's lurking performance as Chief Bromden to Graham Cowley's physically daring personification of paranoid neurotic Cheswick, the characters are as convincing as they are tragic. The action is further intensified through the casting of Rachel Klyce as the authoritarian Nurse Ratched. It's easy to hate the hatchet-faced, big-chested woman of Kesey's novel and Milos Forman's film. But looking more like Kate Winslet and less like a matronly old boot, Klyce presents a savage sweetness that creates an even more disturbing dynamic on the ward. Through Feb. 5 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. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed Jan. 19.

Rapunzel. The Children's Theatre Association of San Francisco gives the well-known yarn about a girl with exceedingly long locks a new sheen with its romping musical adaptation of Rapunzel, staged in the Legion of Honor's gorgeous, subterranean wedding cake of a theater. With its gender stereotyping -- a frilly pink dress and squeaky voice for the generously tressed damsel in distress, and a feathered cap, black boots, and swagger for her handsome prince -- and tidy moral messages, this production presents, in some ways, a traditional retelling of the Grimm fairy tale. But the fizzy book and lyrics by David Crane and Marta Kauffman (an interesting departure for the Emmy Award-winning writing duo behind the Friends television series), composer Michael Skloff's toe-twirling tunes, and quirky performances by CTA's strong-voiced ensemble ensure that the cobwebby one-liner "Rapunzel, Rapunzel let down your hair" isn't a letdown. In fact, some of the jokes play as well to adults as they do to children. From a vegetarian witch (played alternately by Suzy Cronholm and Susan Pelosi) who wears too much hairspray and enjoys turning little boys into Brussels sprouts with her magic ring to a love duet with the tongue-in-cheek refrain "Me, my hair, and I," CTA's show is a scalp-tickling experience. Through Feb. 12 at the Florence Gould Theater, Legion of Honor, 34th Avenue & Clement, S.F. Tickets are $8-10; call 750-3600 or visit www.ctasf.com. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed Jan. 19.

Rush Limbaugh in Night School. Charlie Varon has revived and revamped his hilarious 1994 solo tour de force, a satire that may owe more than a little to Tom Stoppard's Travesties, about Rush Limbaugh and a cast of mostly still-relevant national figures from the left and right. When a conservative Latino radio host threatens Limbaugh's dominance in a Florida market, the potbellied pundit puts on a beard and enrolls in Spanish night classes (at the New School), where he falls in love with a fugitive ex-member of the Weather Underground. For obscure reasons Limbaugh also tries to play Othello in blackface, in a star-studded production featuring Garrison Keillor, directed by Spalding Gray. Things go predictably to hell. Varon's in full command of his characters; the voices are sharp, if not perfect; and his timing is hard to beat. But he and Limbaugh are both visibly older. Varon's point in 1994 was that Limbaugh had upended the whole idea of satire -- he'd turned a traditional weapon of the underprivileged into a tool of power, and the last 10 years have only shown how potent that strategy can be. Limbaugh was pretty much on his own in 1994; lately his talk-radio spawn have probably helped a) elect a new governor in California, and b) re-elect a president. Depressing. Through Feb. 20 at the Marsh, 1062 Valencia (at 22nd Street), S.F. Tickets are $15-22; call 826-5750 or visit www.themarsh.org. (Michael Scott Moore) Reviewed Dec. 15, 2004.

Also Playing

Are We Almost There?
Shelton Theater, 533 Sutter (at Powell), 433-3040.

Beach Blanket Babylon
Club Fugazi, 678 Green (at Powell), 421-4222.

Off-Market Studio, 965 Mission (at Fifth St.), 896-6477, www.cafearts.com.

Beyond Therapy
Shelton Theater, 533 Sutter (at Powell), 433-3040.

Orpheum Theater, 1192 Market (at Eighth St.), 512-7770.

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