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Our critics weigh in on local theater

The Farm. Shotgun Players and director Jon Tracy have radically "remixed" George Orwell's Animal Farm into a seething hip-hop, postapocalyptic, dystopian fantasy — and it works. Production designer Nina Ball fiendishly delivers Mad Max costuming, black-inked tattoos, and a rusted metal set welded onto the back of a burnt-out delivery truck. Dance and animalistic choreography (by Elena Wright) mixed with singing, rapping, beat-boxing, and a drum set made out of oil barrels give this production the gritty, revolutionary feeling of an underground hip-hop concert mixed with Off-Broadway's Stomp. Tracy doesn't stray far from the book — a cautionary, anti-Stalinist tale about an idealistic farm animal revolution and the greed, corruption, and ignorance that follows — though you do have to listen carefully to understand the rapid-fire delivery that is sometimes too wordy for its own good. Orwell was offering up a dark warning in 1945 about power going unchecked by a willfully ignorant populace, which feels even more vital in today's political climate. Bravo to Tracy and company for keeping the message but delivering it in a modern voice of revolution. Through Sept. 13 at John Hinkel Park, 41 Somerset (at Devon), Berkeley. Free-$10; 510-841-6500 or www.shotgunplayers.org. (Nathaniel Eaton) Reviewed Aug. 26.

The Frogs. Woodside's Theatre in the Woods — it's not kidding; just follow that winding one-lane road for a long while into what feels like the absolute middle of nowhere — is an inspired venue for all sorts of shows (A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Woods among them, natch). But it is especially so for director Stuart Bousel's cleverly outgoing adaptation of the Aristophanes classic The Frogs. In this enduring, metalyrical mash-up of low comedy and lit crit, a dandyish Dionysus (Nathan Tucker), with both the audience and his snippety servant Xanthias (B. Warden Lawlor) in tow, takes a light hike down to Hades, where he winds up judging a highfalutin sort of poetry slam between Aeschylus (Carl Lucania) and Euripides (Ben Fisher). Top prize for the tragedian deemed superior: free passage back to the living world. Also, there are singing frogs. A few of the supporting players seem a little lost in the forest at times, and Bousel's festive layer of literal Englishness (think Monty Python) takes to some more than others. But Lucania and Fisher work comedic wonders with their rhetorical battle, and Tucker, to whom divine theatrical revelry comes quite naturally, couldn't be more right for his part. This fun production reminds us that even after 2,400 years, The Frogs has a long way to go before it croaks. Saturdays and Sundays through Sept. 6 at AtmosTheatre's Theatre in the Woods, Bear Gulch Road, Woodside. $15-$20; 632-1680 or www.atmostheatre.com. (Jonathan Kiefer) Reviewed Aug. 26.

Too Big to Fail. Theatrically speaking, Too Big to Fail is as solid as anything you'll see in the Bay Area this summer. The newest production from the Tony Award–winning SF Mime Troupe — now in its 50th season — features a disciplined and spirited ensemble serving up snappy dialogue and snappier musical numbers. Politically, however, the show is a bit more of a muddle. It's a wide-ranging satire on the downfall of America's financial system, though its writers (Michael Gene Sullivan and Ellen Callas) might have done well to spend less time with The Marx-Engels Reader and more time with The Economist. Theirs is an especially naive take on the current financial mess, even by the standards of left-wing agitprop. In a recent performance in a public park in Berkeley, the obviously sympathetic crowd became visibly uncomfortable by the time the Mime Troupe suggested, without apparent irony, that everyone forgo their debts in a "payment strike." The starry-eyed anticapitalism of Too Big to Fail is the kind of activism that creates resistance even among sympathizers: No matter how liberal you think you are, don't be surprised if you leave the play with the powerful urge to go shopping. Through Sept. 27 in locations throughout the Bay Area. Free; 285-1717 or www.sfmt.org. (Chris Jensen) Reviewed Aug. 12.

Actors Reading Writers: Popular local actors read modern and classic short stories. First Monday of every month, 7:30 p.m., free. Berkeley City Club, 2315 Durant (at Ellsworth), Berkeley, 510-848-7800, www.berkeleycityclub.com.

August: Osage County: Tracy Letts' Pulitzer Prize-winning drama. Tuesdays-Sundays. Continues through Sept. 6. Curran Theatre, 445 Geary (at Taylor), 551-2000, www.curran-theater.com.

BATS: Sunday Players: Each week Bay Area Theatresports players pit their improv work against all comers as the audience votes them off one by one until the winner stands alone on the stage. Sundays, 7 p.m., $5-$8, www.improv.org. Bayfront Theater, 16 Marina (at Laguna), 474-6776, www.improv.org/shows/bayfront.htm.

Beach Blanket Babylon: A North Beach perennial featuring crazy hats, media personality caricatures, a splash of romance, and little substance. Now with Rod Blagojevich! Wednesdays, Thursdays, 8 p.m.; Fridays, Saturdays, 6:30 & 9:30 p.m.; Sundays, 2 & 5 p.m., $25-$80, www.beachblanketbabylon.com. Club Fugazi, 678 Green (at Powell), 421-4222.

Big City Improv: Actors take audience suggestions and create comedy from nothing. Fridays, 10 p.m., $15-$20, www.bigcityimprov.com. Shelton Theater, 533 Sutter (at Powell), 882-9100, www.sheltontheater.com.

Comedy of Errors: Enjoy outdoor theater at Free Shakespeare in the Park. Saturdays, Sundays. Continues through Sept. 20, www.sfshakes.org. Presidio Parade Grounds, Lincoln & Montgomery.

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