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Stage Sage

Speculating about this season's theatrical experiments.

First, a familiar caveat: You can't really "preview" theater. You can talk about which directors are worth following, and you can interview playwrights, and you can discuss which companies have or haven't been up to snuff lately. But you can't predict the success of a particular play, any more than you can anticipate whether a Polaroid will make you look pasty. Oh, you can have some idea. You just can't know.

So let's start by saying that, very broadly speaking, all theater falls into two categories: the safe and the daring. But even that distinction is ridiculous — sometimes safe material gets a daring treatment, and sometimes daring material gets handled with too much delicacy. And what does "daring" mean, anyway? Daring to whom? Reviews are supposed to answer questions like that. This, being a preview, can only break down the fall season by comfort level. For the rest, we'll just have to wait and see.

As Exhibit A in the "safe" category, I give you the fall roster at American Conservatory Theater (749-2228, www.act-sf.org). First we have Brief Encounter (Sept. 11-Oct. 4), a tasty chestnut from that master of chestnuts, Noël Coward. That's followed by the West Coast premiere of David Mamet's November (Oct. 23-Nov. 15), a political comedy that proved a crowd-pleaser in New York, in large part because it's pretty toothless. In neither case will you really go wrong; just don't expect to be startled.

Meanwhile, across the Bay, we have the reliably solid California Shakespeare Festival (510-548-9666, www.calshakes.org). The company is wrapping up a mighty brave — and grimly hilarious — production of Samuel Beckett's Happy Days (through Sept. 6), only to make an instant retreat to the summer-stock standby A Midsummer Night's Dream (Sept. 16-Oct. 11). Granted, CalShakes managed to squeeze new blood out of Romeo and Juliet back in June, so at least the overfamiliar material should get a fresh reading.

Those are a few of the safe bets — which leads us into trickier territory. At this juncture, the most I can do is point out some of the season's most promising theatrical experiments. Your mileage, as they say, may vary.

In a way, Berkeley Rep's season opener isn't daring at all, unless you stop and consider that staging a high-profile world premiere of a musical is all kinds of crazy. American Idiot (Sept. 4-Oct. 11) is a stage adaptation of Green Day's massively popular concept album of the same name; it's directed by Michael Mayer, the man responsible for staging Spring Awakening on Broadway. In other words, we're talking about something that ought to be a hit even in the unlikely event that it isn't any good. The Rep follows that right up with Tony Kushner's little-seen collection of one-acts, Tiny Kushner (Oct. 16-Nov. 29). That show might qualify as "safe" in some circles, too — but give the Rep credit for staging work every theater geek in town will clamor to see. (510-647-2949 or www.berkeleyrep.org.)

Here in the city, a smaller-scale analogue to Berkeley Rep is SF Playhouse (677-9596, www.sfplayhouse.org), a company that consistently rolls out smart, polished productions of new or little-known plays. This season, the company has turned its full attention to comedy, beginning with the world premiere of Billy Aronson's sex farce, First Day of School (Sept. 23-Nov. 7).

The Traveling Jewish Theatre (292-1233, www.atjt.com) nearly matches SF Playhouse in terms of daring and execution. This fall sees the company's premiere of Stateless: A Hip-Hop Vaudeville Experiment (Oct. 22-Dec. 6), Dan Wolf's follow-up to last season's Angry Black White Boy. Stateless interprets German and Jewish history through a combination of beat-box and vaudeville — a concept that sounds at once too strange to work and too enticing to miss.

Also in the "strangely wonderful" category, Theatre of Yugen (621-0507, www.theatreofyugen.org) specializes in unlikely cultural mashups — including last spring's Candide, or Optimism, which reimagined Voltaire through the filter of Kyogen-style comedy. Now the company is making an even bolder move: Dogsbody (Oct. 22-24) is a version of Homer's Iliad told from the perspective of child soldiers.

And of course, this being autumn, you'll find more than a few companies trying to scare your pants off. While I'm waiting for the purveyors of Grand Guignol at Thrillpeddlers to announce their October production (check for updates at www.thrillpeddlers.com), I'll place my Halloween bets on Sleepwalkers Theatre (913-7272, www.sleepwalkerstheatre.com), a company that has managed to churn out a few fine productions featuring exclusively local playwrights. Sleepwalkers' October offering might not be as topical as the company's normal fare, but at least it's well-timed: Zombie Town (Oct. 9-Nov. 7), a sort of live mockumentary about a recent zombie outbreak in Harwood, Texas, should help curb your autumnal hunger for braaaaains.

But of course I've missed your favorite local company — your Shotgun Players or your Impact Theatre or your Crowded Fire. They're just as likely to produce smart, innovative work as anybody else. And as with anything theatrical, some nights will be better than others, and some shows will improve or devolve over the course of their runs. Reviews can help you winnow out the worthiest, but the only way to really know what's worth seeing is to go out and see it for yourself. Until then, your guess is as good as mine.

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