Our critics weigh in on local theater

Nicholas Nickleby. California Shakespeare Theater's Nicholas Nickleby, adapted from Charles Dickens' 1838 novel by British playwright David Edgar, manages to wrestle the audience's attention away from rustling picnics and the rising moon through ingeniously theatrical staging and an alacrity of pace that makes you almost forget you've been sitting on a cold seat for more than three hours. Dickens' novel -- which follows the seesaw fortunes of the 19-year-old Nicholas Nickleby and his sister, Kate, in the wake of the death of their kindly but bankrupt father -- was initially adapted by Edgar for a 1980 London production by the Royal Shakespeare Company. Cal Shakes' two-part production, with its 24 actors and 6-1/2-hour running time (both parts together), is a "miniature" version of the original, which employed 48 actors and ran at close to nine hours. Edgar himself pared down his RSC text for Cal Shakes. Nickleby owes much of its magic to the combined creativity of directors Jonathan Moscone and Sean Daniels. Edgar's adaptation, which swings back and forth between different locations, is fluidly rendered through seamless physical and emotional changes. The ensemble scenes are lively and magnetic, but the general high pitch of the performances, in which every sentence is delivered as if it were the punch line to an extremely funny and original joke, backfires in a number of ways, such as undermining some of Dickens' most juicy scenes and characters -- the few that are supposed to be over the top. Part Two through Sept. 11 at the Bruns Memorial Amphitheater, 100 Gateway Blvd. (just off Highway 24), Orinda. Tickets are $10-55; call (510) 548-9666 or visit (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed July 27.

The Ugly American. Like many European destinations, London has always held a romantic allure for young Americans, appealing to their appetite for olde pubs, fish and chips, and tasty birds. But the recent bombings in the U.K. capital have caused that city's dark side to resurface in the global imagination with alarming force. As a result, the kernel of melancholy and fear at the heart of Mike Daisey's The Ugly American, an otherwise unabashedly potty account of the author's student year abroad in mid-1990s London, feels particularly powerful. Daisey -- who looks a bit like the Duchess from Alice in Wonderland as depicted by Victorian illustrator John Tenniel in the original editions of Lewis Carroll's book, and also shares something of the raucous Dame's demeanor -- is a master raconteur in the tradition of Spalding Gray, capable of entrancing an audience for two hours while only once getting up from behind a large wooden desk (and that was for the 10-minute intermission). The Ugly American is as daft, prescient, and eloquently delivered as Daisey's earlier solo show, 21 Dog Years: Doing Time@ Yet the material for this new effort could use some refining: While Daisey's journey to the fringes of London's theater scene is hilarious and culturally astute, the storyteller's depiction of his bittersweet love affair with a fellow actor feels long-winded and aimless. Through Aug. 13 at the Berkeley Rep's Thrust Stage, 2025 Addison (at Shattuck), Berkeley. Tickets are $15-35; call (510) 647-2949 or visit (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed Aug. 3.

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? did for the American theater in 1962 what Shelagh Delaney's A Taste of Honey did for its British equivalent just four years previously. Products of the postwar fracture of traditional family values and gender roles, both plays sent shock waves across their respective cultural landscapes and changed the face of theater forever. But while these days Delaney's play is considered a period piece and rarely performed, Actors Theatre's production (along with, of course, the recent highly lauded Broadway revival starring Bill Irwin and Kathleen Turner) proves Virginia Woolf to be as fresh today as it was when Albee wrote it. The caustically funny and darkly depraved drama takes place over the course of a booze-soaked night at the university-campus home of middle-aged history professor George (Christian Phillips) and his wife, Martha (Julia McNeal), as they play cat and mouse with each other and their newbie guests, the twentysomething biology professor Nick (Daniel Hart Donoghue) and his wife, Honey (Tara Donoghue). The claustrophobic atmosphere of Biz Duncan's living room set enhances the intensity of the couples' relentless "fun and games." Combining incisive, rhythmic direction by Keith Phillips and Kenneth Vandenberg with crisp performances by all four cast members (Tara Donoghue is especially pathetic and hilarious as the "thin-hipped" Honey), Actors Theatre's Virginia Woolf expertly mines the complex nature of marital relationships. Through Sept. 3 at the Actors Theatre, 533 Sutter (between Powell and Mason), S.F. Tickets are $10-30; call 296-9179 or visit (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed June 22.

Also Playing

Do You Want to Buy My Brain? Exit Theatre, 156 Eddy (at Taylor), 673-3847.

Grease USF Presentation Theater, 2350 Turk (at Masonic), 422-2434.

Jesus Hopped the "A" Train The Fellowship Church, 2041 Larkin (at Broadway), 776-4910.

Regretrosexual Phoenix Theatre, 414 Mason (at Geary), Suite 601, 989-0023.

Slow Falling Bird Exit Theatre on Taylor, 277 Taylor (at Ellis), 673-3847.

When God Winked Anna's Jazz Island, 2120 Allston (at Shattuck), Berkeley, 510-841-2599.

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