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Our critics weigh in on local theater

Anna Bella Eema.Obie Award-winning playwright Lisa D'Amour's trailer-park gothic about a mother, daughter, and a girl made of dust is arresting and mesmerizing. One portion of the show has daughter (Anna Bella) asleep for five days after getting her first period. While mother (Irena) and the dust girl (Anna Bella Eema) wait for her to wake up, Anna Bella goes on a five-day journey where she is led by a series of animal guides that includes a toothless raccoon called Dirty Louie and a blind owl in a rowboat with a cat on its shoulders. Over these five days Irena has barricaded them inside while police and construction workers surround their home. Ultimately, Anna Bella Eema is a story about adaptability, love, and survival. Director Rebecca Novick displays a clear vision with this difficult piece, and the actors and designers do a tremendous job of bringing that vision to life. After every performance, there is "fireside chat" with artistic director Kent Nicholson and the cast, which I highly recommend attending. This show needs and deserves the time to sink in. Through July 15 at Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby (at Martin Luther King Way), Berkeley. General admission is $20; students, seniors, and TBA members $10. Call 439-2456 or visit www.crowdedfire.org. Reviewed July 4. (N.D.)

Impact Briefs 8: Sinfully Delicious. What makes Impact Theatre and La Val's Pizza such a great combination is that they don't try to pretend they're something they're not: La Val's isn't going to blow your taste buds away, and Impact isn't focused on the subtle nuances of the human condition. What they can offer you is solid grub and genuinely broad laughs, served up this time in the guise of six short plays from seasoned writers around the country about the various sins of the flesh. Actor Leon Goertzen is particularly adept at embracing the many zany situations and milking the audience's reactions for all they're worth. But even if some moments fall flat, the "premium" beer never does; and, hey, a pitcher costs less than 10 bucks. Add in above-average comedic writing, saucy burlesque dancers, and a group of your rowdiest friends, and really, for 90 minutes of weekend entertainment, what more do you need? Through July 21 at La Val's Subterranean (in the basement below the pizzeria), 1834 Euclid Ave., Berkeley. Tickets are $10-15; call 510-464-4468 or visit www.impacttheatre.com. Reviewed July 4. (M.R.)

Legends.The first run of Legends in the mid-1980s led playwright James Kirkwood to write the book Diary of a Mad Playwright about the experience. The original production starred Carol Channing as Sylvia Glenn and Mary Martin as Leatrice Monsee, a duo of past-their-prime rival divas, and was fraught with trouble from the dueling egos of the stars to the bad press the show received. Critics panned Kirkwood's choice to make the two African-American characters the maid and the stripper, respectively. Sylvia Glenn at one point in the first act tells her maid Aretha, "Why don't you go pick some cotton." While NCTC's production does ameliorate the racial offensiveness of the original production by casting two African-American actresses in the lead roles, it doesn't fix the script, which is full of campy dialogue that no amount of slapstick can make funny. The casting is the best part of this show: Dorsey Dyer is wonderful playing Boom Boom as a Bambi-esque Chippendale's dancer, and Gloria Belle does what she can with Aretha. P.A. Cooley is a bit over the top as the scheming producer, Martin Klemmer, trying to trick the two divas into co-starring in a stage version of Star Wars that will hopefully save all three from financial ruin. The biggest problem with this production is the play itself, which really should have died after its perilous 1986 run. Through July 14 at the New Conservatory Theatre Centre, 25 Van Ness (at Market), S.F. Tickets are $22-$40 ( $15 for students); call 861-8972 or visit www.nctcsf.org. Reviewed June 13. (N.D.)

The Pandora Experiment. For Christian Cagigal's newest magic show, the audience is not so much a subject of clinical study as an object of affection. Cagigal stands on a living room rug counting audience members with his stage manager before stepping off and moments later re-emerging transformed to guide us through "the experiment." Cagigal uses antique objects that are well-worn, simple, and accessible; two music boxes with haunting chimes, small chests with the treasures of a child inside. A doll of porcelain and papier-mâché gazes soulfully throughout and feels as real as any of us. Cagigal's performance takes the audience beyond just the willing suspension of disbelief and into another place in time where magic is not the work of an illusionist or performer but exists in creaky wooden boxes found in a grandparent's attic. The set and lighting underscore Cagigal's creation by producing an ethereal beauty. His staging and sensitivity as he plays with his audience conveys a level of safety and trust so as to not to make viewers feel duped, but included in the magic. What does The Pandora Experiment reveal? Above all else: imagination. Through July 28 at the Exit Theatre, 156 Eddy St. (between Mason and Taylor), S.F. Tickets are $12-$20; call 673-3847 or visit www.theexit.org. Reviewed June 20. (N.D.)

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