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 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 continues 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 www.calshakes.org. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed July 27.

Sore Throats. The daytime-soap-esque plot of British playwright Howard Brenton's 1979 drama Sore Throats gives little of the play's raw expressive power away. Revolving around the aftermath of an ugly divorce between a 45-year-old policeman, Jack, and his 39-year-old ex-wife, Judy, Sore Throats proffers a deeply nihilistic perspective on the nature of marital relationships. The theater has become accustomed to explicit acts of sex and violence in the 26 years since Brenton wrote Sore Throats. That the play still resonates thousands of miles away from the suburban London in which it is set, and after more than a quarter of a century in time, is testimony both to the power of the writing and to Last Planet's compact yet emphatic staging. Brenton's play has its physically vicious moments: For example, when Jack (Matt Leshinskie) first strikes Judy (Heidi Wolff) in the mouth, even familiarity with the play does not ready you for the clipped brutality of the act. But the true source of conflict and shock in Sore Throats isn't in these physical acts of violence -- it's in the startling pictures evoked by the characters' words. Furthermore, what director John Wilkins and his cast brilliantly understand is that for all the brutality of its language, Sore Throats has an ardently redemptive core. The characters might behave in the most childish of ways (indeed all three of them seem to be going through a latent anal phase with their frequent references to each other's sexual organs), but the actors manage to convey a subtle beauty in Judy, Jack, and Sally (Miranda Calderon) that on occasions transcends the mess of these characters' lives. Through Aug. 21 at Last Planet Theatre, 351 Turk (between Hyde and Leavenworth), S.F. Tickets are $15-18 (Thursdays are two-for-one); call 440-3505 or visit www.lastplanettheatre.com. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed Aug. 10.

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 www.actorstheatresf.org. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed June 22.

Also Playing

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

BATS: Sunday Players Fort Mason, Bldg. B, Marina & Buchanan, 474-6776.

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