Our critics weigh in on local theater

The Crucible. Set during the Salem witch hunts of 1692, Arthur Miller's The Crucible (1953) depicts the downward slide of a small Massachusetts community from relative normality to mass hysteria. Miller's ghoulish and brilliant drama is commonly read as an indictment of intolerant, fearmongering regimes. It was written in response to one -- namely, the wave of anti-communism spawned by Sen. Joseph McCarthy in the early 1950s. But the play resonates on many levels, most eloquently -- in the case of the Playhouse's articulate, witch-on-a-broomstick-paced production -- in the depiction of mixed-up adolescence at a time when the word "teenager" didn't even exist. As Salem's gaggle of impressionable pubescents, Mindy Lim, Skye Noel Smith, Lauren English, and Sigrid Sutter penetrate the dark dynamics of what it means to be in -- or, in the case of Janna Sobel's engaging turn as the awkward and terrified Mary Warren, out of -- a clique. The grown-up characters in this production seem flat in comparison to these spirited, devilish teens. Through Oct. 22 at the Playhouse, 536 Sutter (between Powell and Mason), S.F. Tickets are $36; call 677-9596 or visit www.sfplayhouse.org. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed Oct. 5.

Gemini. Set in a scruffy, ethnically diverse district of South Philadelphia, Albert Innaurato's Gemini (1977) describes what happens when Francis, a mixed-up Harvard undergraduate with a weight problem and an infatuation with Maria Callas, receives a surprise birthday visit during summer vacation from his sometime squeeze, Judith, and her younger brother, Randy. The trio spend a weekend cracking sophomoric jokes, eating copious amounts of spaghetti with Francis' dad and his partner, Lucille, and fending off the attentions of the Irish-Jewish people next door. The play is full of Sturm und Drang, but the assorted suicide attempts, bouts of physical violence, and infidelities seem inauthentic and cartoonish in comparison with Gemini's deeper interest in the trivial, the coincidental, and the mundane. Actors Theatre of San Francisco doesn't quite manage to make the play's series of nonevents work. Part of the problem stems from the size and feel of the space. But the production isn't entirely to blame. The issue, ultimately, lies in the choice of play. Not only does Gemini feel dated, but Innaurato's technique of flattening out the highs and lows also doesn't exactly make for exciting theater. Through Oct. 15 at Actors Theatre, 533 Sutter (between Powell and Mason), S.F. Tickets are $10-25; call 296-9179 or visit www.actorstheatresf.org. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed Oct. 5.

The Philanderer. George Bernard Shaw's 1893 comedy seems, on the face of it, to be very much of its time: Dealing with a resolutely heterosexual love triangle among the rakish man about town, Leonard Charteris, a young widow, Grace Tranfield, and the unmarried daughter of a colonel, Julia Craven, the play is couched in the politics of the women's rights movement. Yet at the same time, The Philanderer transcends its era: Shaw's whip-cracking critique of the hard and fast rules governing sexual relationships in Victorian times, as well as its part-playful, part-deadly-serious championing of a more fluid approach to gender, relationships, and sexuality, can be interpreted as an exploration of issues surrounding gay rights today -- and gay marital rights in particular. It is from this standpoint that Theatre Rhinoceros' rhythmic and witty production takes its lead, making the most of the play's sexual fluidity. Striding about in a period tweed pantsuit, Ann Lawler looks thoroughly boyish as Julia's sister Sylvia. Libby O'Connell's Julia, on the other hand, resembles a drag queen or a pantomime dame. And the male characters are all suitably fey. Yet for all the gender-bending, the beauty of this production lies not so much in what it says about gay marital rights in our times, but in its searing depiction of a more eternal theme -- that of what it means to be an outcast or oddball in society. Through Oct. 15 at Theatre Rhinoceros, 2926 16th St. (between Mission and South Van Ness), S.F. Tickets are $15-25; call 861-5079 or visit www.therhino.org. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed Sept. 28.

The Tribute to Frank, Sammy, Joey & Dean. Sandy Hackett's swingin' tribute to the Rat Pack takes us back to a time when men wore tuxedos in the desert, women could be one of two things (a lady or a tramp), and Celine Dion was just a golden apple in Las Vegas' hungry eye. Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Joey Bishop, and Dean Martin are brought back to life by God -- and the talents of a quartet of impersonators -- for one more night of highballing at the Sands Hotel. The concert-style production, featuring a live 12-piece band, perfectly captures the spirit of a long-lost era -- from Johnny Edwards' glossy Dean Martin pompadour to what would now be considered terribly un-PC gaffs about black Jews. These particular tribute artists aren't necessarily dead ringers for Frank and company, but if you close your eyes and listen to Brian Duprey's silk-voiced renditions of "My Way" and "Come Fly With Me," you almost feel like you've been transported, martini in hand, to another time and place. In an open-ended run at the Post Street Theatre, 450 Post (at Powell), S.F. Tickets are $35-60; call 771-6900 or visit www.poststreettheatre.com. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed Aug. 24.

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