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Our critics weigh in on local theatre

The Lion King. How do you turn a decent cartoon about African wildlife into a lame Broadway musical? 1) Puzzle carefully about the problem of costumes and sets. Pour millions of dollars and hours of mental energy into making your actors look like lions, hyenas, elephants, wildebeests, giraffes, and birds. Solve the problem brilliantly. Hire Julie Taymor to design the magnificent costumes and masks (and to direct the show). Hire Garth Fagan to choreograph elegant, exciting, Afro-Caribbean dance routines. Make sure Donald Holder lights the stage with an eloquent feeling for African distances and sunshine. In general make the show a visual feast. Then, 2) squint in confusion at the script, and 3) carve it up to make room for appalling songs by Tim Rice and Elton John. You'll have a profitable bunch of nonsense with more than one God-soaked number that sounds indistinguishable from bad Whitney Houston. The only cast member who can transcend this mess and give a stirring performance is Thandazile Soni, as Rafiki the monkey shaman, who gets to sing songs like "Nants' Ingonyama," by Lebo M, and other African chants originated by Tsidii Le Loka on Broadway. Bob Bouchard is also funny as Pumbaa the warthog, and Derek Smith plays a perfectly arrogant, sinister Scar, the pretender lion king. Otherwise the show is forced and childish. Adults looking for good theater will be happier when the performers dance instead of trying to act. Through Sept. 5 at the Orpheum Theatre, 1182 Market (at Eighth Street), S.F. Tickets are $26-160; call 512-7770 or visit Reviewed Feb. 11.

Mooi Street Moves. Clive Chafer's semihomeless Theatrefirst company turns the elegant patio room of the Berkeley City Club (where Aurora Theatre once played) into a laundry-and-shoebox-cluttered squat for a biting drama about homelessness and displacement in post-apartheid South Africa. Mooi Street Moves shows a white farm boy, Henry, returning to an apartment his brother used to rent, but finding in his place a dreadlocked, cheerful, and deeply unhelpful African named Stix. This suburban neighborhood of Johannesburg has been abandoned by middle-class Afrikaners and overtaken by Africans in a sudden sort of white flight, mainly because of inadequate civil rights legislation in the aftermath of apartheid (according to director Clive Chafer's useful notes). Stix survives as a thieving middleman; he fills the squat with boxes of TVs, shoes, and toasters for resale. Henry himself is homeless, so to live with Stix and earn money he learns the patter and moves of a street hustler -- "Mooi Street moves." Paul Slabolepszy is one of South Africa's leading playwrights, and under Chafer's crisp direction, not to mention pitch-perfect acting by David Skillman (as Stix) and Joseph Foss (as Henry), his brief, slightly contrived pas de deux comes on bright and strong. Chafer has made a local career of mounting fine, neglected plays about race from every corner of the former British Empire -- India, Israel, South Africa, even England itself -- and Mooi Street is one of his most highly polished. Through May 9 at the Berkeley City Club, 2315 Durant (at Ellsworth), Berkeley. Tickets are $18-22; call (510) 436-5085 or visit Reviewed April 28.

Slaughter City. With this mystical take on a slaughterhouse workers' strike in the early '90s, Naomi Wallace wants to transcend your average agitprop labor play. Slaughter City isn't just about men and women working long, underpaid hours in a meat factory; it also involves the ghost of an immigrant sausage maker and a young gender-ambiguous butcher who may or may not be stuck in time. (He sees visions of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire of 1911.) It's a noble experiment, and parts of it work harrowingly well; Slaughter City at least transcends the pettiness of bad agitprop. But it also veers and detours; it tries too hard to address everything from race to women's rights to the politics of sex in one grandiose sweep. (The American premiere in Cambridge, Mass., years ago suffered from the same problem.) In addition, a stiffness in the acting plagues Rebecca Novick's production: Except for Gillian Chadsey (as Cod, the gender-ambiguous knife-man) and the excellent Rebecca Scarpaci (as Maggot, a knife-woman who loves him), this Crowded Fire cast tends to oversell its lines. The harsh details of slaughterhouse work are ugly and fascinating, but Wallace's huge ambition as a writer saps the workers' story. Through May 8 at the Exit Theater, 156 Eddy (between Mason and Taylor), S.F. Tickets are $15-20; call 675-5995 or visit Reviewed April 28.

Valparaiso. Don DeLillo's 1999 play follows an ordinary guy named Michael Majeski on his round of press interviews after a simple business trip to Valparaiso, Ind., goes horribly wrong. He winds up on an international flight for Valparaiso, Chile, and his story turns into a news-of-the-weird novelty item on most American networks. The play shows the glare of Majeski's Warholian 15 minutes. Rod Hipskind plays a likable Majeski -- wiry, frantic, bearded, wearing a gray rumpled suit -- and Csilla Horvath is crisp and compulsive as Livia, his hyperactive wife. Jessica Jelliffe is also an appropriately sinister daytime-TV queen named Delfina Treadwell. But the characters are constructed and flat; something about DeLillo's social criticism feels too glib. It must be easy for a writer to declare the hollowness of postmodern selfhood when he writes such hollow characters. Through May 8 at the Exit on Taylor, 277 Taylor (between O'Farrell and Eddy), S.F. Continuing May 13-22 at the Transparent Theater, Ashby & MLK, Berkeley. Tickets are $12-25; call (866) GOT-FURY or visit Reviewed April 28.

Also Playing

After the Fall: Actors Theatre's revamp of Arthur Miller's autobiographical play about a lawyer who analyzes his life's successes and failures, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays, through May 22; $5-$20. Actors Theatre San Francisco, 533 Sutter (at Powell), 296-9179.

Are We Almost There?: Morris Bobrow's rollicking, long-running musical comedy about the trials and tribulations of travel, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, $20-$22. Shelton Theater, 533 Sutter (at Powell), 433-3040.


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