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Our critics weigh in on local theater

Figaro. People are so seduced by Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro that they tend to overlook the opera's anarchic roots. Historians today widely consider the 18th-century French dramatist Beaumarchais' stage play of the same title to have performed a major role in instigating the French Revolution. It is the revolutionary zeal at the heart of Beaumarchais and Mozart's works that audacious Minneapolis-based theater company Theatre de la Jeune Lune aims to restore and explore in its adaptation of the story. Director Dominique Serrand's version takes place nearly 20 years after the events depicted in Marriage, as the decrepit, philandering Count Almaviva (Serrand) thinks wistfully back to the good old days of sexual intrigue and power in the company of his long-suffering servant Figaro (Steven Epp). The music-infused production examines what it's like to live among the embers of a once-blazing revolutionary pyre through a mixture of Mozartian melody, Beaumarchaisian bombast, and Jeune Lunian lunacy. The physically adventurous and linguistically ingenious double-act of Serrand and Epp reveals thoughtful parallels between the staleness of post-revolutionary France and the widespread feeling of sluggish impotence that has become a hallmark of our own times. But being subjected to lengthy flashback sequences involving renditions of arias from Mozart's opera by an uneven cast dampens the fire. Through June 8 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2025 Addison (at Shattuck), Berkeley. Tickets are $16.50-$69; call 510-647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org.(Chloe Veltman) Reviewed May 7.

Flaming Sin: London's Grand Guignol. The most enticing aspect of Thrillpeddlers' latest Grand Guignol theater spectacle is the way it messes with our emotions. The first of the evening's entertainments, a recently rediscovered one-act by Noel Coward, is anything but a lightweight domestic farce. Set in the home of a wealthy, unhappily married woman, the narrative deals with her attempts to force her superficially dashing and upright husband to get in touch with his dark side. The work feels utterly contemporary for its unconventional views on marital relationships, drawn out by Eddie Muller's tight direction and nuanced performances from Alice Louise and Jonathan Ingbretson. Next on the bill is a macabre drama by Christopher Holland, adapted from a seminal French Grand Guignol play. Unraveling in a lunatic asylum, the story concerns an innocent young inmate's ghastly fate at the hands of three delusional old crones. Through May 31 at the Hypnodrome, 575 10th St. (at Bryant), S.F. Tickets are $20-$34.50; call 377-4202 or visit www.thrillpeddlers.com. (C.V.) Reviewed April 23.

The Ladies of the Camellias. The name of Sarah Bernhardt might not mean much to most theatergoers — at least, not beyond a vague awareness that she was once considered the world's greatest actress. The name Eleonora Duse probably means even less; think of her as Bernhardt's Italian foil. Lillian Groag's 1997 comedy The Ladies of the Camellias considers what might have transpired during the first meeting of these two theatrical legends in 1897 Paris, when they each performed the title role in dueling productions of La Dame aux camélias. Groag spins her premise into a wildly speculative farce, culminating in the entrance of a bomb-wielding Russian anarchist (Vlad Sayenko) who represents, somewhat heavy-handedly, the dawn of the age of Chekhov and Stanislavski. Joyce Henderson directs and stars as Duse in this Off Broadway West production; she's the only member of the ensemble who gives a completely convincing performance. Unfortunately, most of the other actors ensure that the play's zaniness operates at a frustratingly low velocity, especially during the sodden first act. Through May 31 at the Phoenix Theatre, 414 Mason (at Geary), S.F. Tickets are $25-$30; call 510-835-4205 or visit www.offbroadwaywest.org. (Christopher Jensen) Reviewed May 14.

A Midsummer Night's Dream. Developed over two years in India, British director Tim Supple's version of Shakespeare's comedy of love and bewitchment not only features an all-Asian cast, but also disposes of about 50 percent of Shakespeare's language. Over the course of the show, the actors intersperse bits of the original English verse with lines translated into Hindi, Bengali, Tamil, Sinhalese, Malayalam, Marathi, and Sanskrit. At one level, being forced to abandon all hope of understanding what's being said onstage is liberating. Without language, our responses to the action are utterly visceral. We start to hear the sounds coming out of the actors' mouths not as words but as music, and every string, wind, or percussion note played by the three company musicians seems rich and strange. Sumant Jayakrishnan's massive bamboo climbing frame backdrop and riotously hued Asian-themed costumes and Zuleikha Chaudhari's passionate lights play as significant a role in the action as the performers' intense facial expressions and extreme physicality: We rely on the interplay of all these elements to draw meaning from the play. When Archana Ramaswamy's Titania chases PR Jijoy's Oberon down the wooden rungs of the set, viciously pulling his hair, cries of "Ouch!" ricochet around the audience. And when Joy Fernandes' Bottom ambles onstage with raffia donkey ears and what looks like a giant acorn squash attached to the front of his pants, we hoot with laughter. Yet at another level, feeling linguistically challenged conveys the frustration Shakespeare's Athenian lovers experience at the mercy of their uncontrollable passions. Through June 1 at the Curran Theatre, 445 Geary (at Mason), S.F. Tickets are $35-$80; call 512-7770 or visit www.shnsf.com. (C.V.) Reviewed May. 14.

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