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Our critics weigh in on local theater

The Arabian Nights. Mary Zimmerman's theatrical retelling of narratives from the ancient Middle Eastern story cycle also popularly known as The Thousand and One Nights is all about the power of riveting stories to bring the hidden to light and resuscitate long-dormant truths in society. Concealment is a running theme throughout. It's there in the main plot concerning the ruthless King Shahryar, who, in revenge at having caught his wife in the arms of another man, vows to murder every virgin in the land. But the wily Scheherezade manages to staunch his bloodlust by telling him a series of incredible stories that distract him from killing her. Eventually, Scheherezade helps the king rediscover his buried compassion. With the help of dozens of brightly colored Persian rugs, a canopy of hanging lanterns, and 15 versatile ensemble performers who match vivid characterizations with flamboyant musical, dancing, improvisational comedy, and storytelling skills, Zimmerman creates a multilayered world. This visually and intellectually captivating production reveals a deep connection between a civilization and its heritage, no matter how buried beneath the sands of war-torn time that cultural legacy might be. However, as universal as Zimmerman's approach to her material appears on the surface, its political subtext, concerning the imminent destruction of the Middle East, feels passé. Through Jan. 18 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2025 Addison (at Shattuck), Berkeley. Tickets are $13.50-$71; call 510- 647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed Dec. 10.

Dame Edna Live and Intimate! In Her First Last Tour. Dame Edna Everage, the drag queen alter ego of 74-year-old Australian performer and writer Barry Humphries, often describes her live act as "a conversation between two people — one of whom is more interesting than the other." As big as her ego is, it's hard to think of any comic performer who brings out the best in audiences as well as Dame Edna does. For example, in a chat show routine involving four audience members the night I attended, a retired San Francisco Zoo penguin keeper called Jane became half of a hilarious impromptu comedy duo with the Dame. Jane made un-PC comments about having a short Brazilian housekeeper; Dame Edna drew a link between the penguins and the nuns at the Catholic schools Jane attended. An elderly male interviewee, affectionately dubbed "Senior," gave an impressive, full-blown rendition of "If I Were a Rich Man" from Fiddler on the Roof. Onstage pianist Andrew Ross swiftly picked up the key and played along. "I have never before in my life felt superfluous," Dame Edna said after Senior was through. And, in perhaps the most surprising ad-libbed moment, a tiny woman with gray bangs and an elfin face vehemently declared, when asked whether her husband was still alive, "No. I'm so glad he's dead, and I hope he's in hell." These spontaneous moments are by far the best part of the show. Many of the fully scripted sections, such as Dame Edna's now-mildewed riffs about her gay son, seemed canned and lifeless by comparison. Through Jan. 4 at Post Street Theatre, 450 Post (at Powell), S.F. $58-78; call 771-6900 or visit www.unionsquaretheatres.com. (C.V.) Reviewed Dec. 17.

Star Wars: Live on Stage! Who the hell knows how they did it, but somehow the funky people behind one of the city's funkiest theaters, the Dark Room, got permission from Lucasfilm to perform Star Wars live on their little 8-by-10-foot stage (although they were forbidden to use any of John Williams' musical score). Just as amazingly, they pull off a glorious show despite having a reported special-effects budget of $100 and at least one cast member who admitted to never having acted before. While they employ little moments of parody, such as referring to Tatooine as the "playa," and minor side scenes of a duo of bickering stormtroopers, this is a fairly faithful adaptation of the original movie. Much of the continued hilarity comes from the pure ridiculousness of earnestly staging a multimillion-dollar sci-fi epic on a shoestring budget. Since most audiences have the script practically memorized, half the fun is waiting to see how each scene will be staged or what each character will look like. The incredible handmade costumes steal the show: C-3PO is a creative jumble of golden face paint, tights, CDs, and molded plastic; Chewbacca, meanwhile, looks like a thousand pounds of fake fur was sewed together. This show is a true original and not to be missed by diehard fans. It's what the original would have hilariously looked like if George Lucas didn't have his millions. Through Dec. 27 at the Dark Room Theater, 2263 Mission (at 19th St.), S.F. Tickets are $20; www.darkroomsf.com/starwars. (Nathaniel Eaton) Reviewed Dec. 17.

Tenderloin Christmas Hustler. If you're looking for a raunchy Christmas show, look no further than this frothy and fun musical parody confection. The adventures of T.C. – a Walnut Bleak high school dropout who can't help exploding with glitter whenever he gets too excited — take us through every Christmas storytime staple from Miracle on 34th Street to Frosty the Snowman. Creators Jake Eastman, Demetrius Martin, and Todd Pickering milk as many sexual innuendos as they can from these holiday chestnuts without losing their aw-gee-whiz quality. Lines such as "He began to well up inside in places he'd never welled up before" litter the script, and a sweetly romantic skating duet takes place at the "Kristi Yummy Coochie Holiday Ice Rink." True, the singing isn't consistently strong, and the conceit doesn't quite sustain its two-hour length. But with superb costumes by Matthew Hines and a knockout performance by Miss Trannyshack 2006, Raya Light, you just might find yourself giggling and singing along. Through Dec. 27 at Phoenix Theatre, 414 Mason (at Geary), sixth floor, S.F. $20-$25; call 637-3154 or visit www.tenderloinxmashustler.com. (Molly Rhodes) Reviewed Dec. 17.

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