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Our critics weigh in on local theatre

Drifting Elegant. Stephen Belber's new drama belongs to the Magic Theatre's "Hot House" cycle of three fresh plays, performed in repertory with Relativity (by Cassandra Medley) and The 13 Hallucinations of Julio Rivera (by Stephen R. Culp). Drifting Elegant deals with rape, race, and conscience. Nate, a freelance reporter, takes an assignment to profile an accused rapist just released from prison. One problem: Nate knew the victim. An African-American reporter for the same paper, Elizabeth, accused the prisoner of rape, then exonerated him before dying of cancer. Nate not only knew Elizabeth -- they had a brief affair. Now he proposes to write a balanced piece about the man she sent to jail. Is he biased? Yes. Does he interview the guy anyway? Yes. Victor Saad, the accused, is tight-lipped at first, but then reverses himself and starts to intrude on Nate's shambling, unstable life. Darren Bridgett does nice work as Nate, who never knows when to shut up, and Harry Dillon is an effectively stoic Victor, showing up most of Nate's folly. Barbara Pitts also does well enough as Jen, Nate's wife, who flirts with a slick African-American friend of theirs, Renny (Michael Gene Sullivan). But Jen in particular seems undeveloped: She talks too much like her husband, and the concept of the play seems to rest on one forced speech of hers at the end. Nate's deepest, unspoken motivation for writing about Victor in the first place -- unabsolved guilt over Elizabeth -- also feels dodgy. Drifting Elegant still isn"t free of its own ideas; it may need more time in the hothouse. Through June 20 at the Magic Theatre, Fort Mason Center, Building D, Marina & Buchanan, S.F. Tickets are $25; call 441-8822 or visit (M.S.M.) Reviewed May 12.

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 (M.S.M.) Reviewed Feb. 11.

A Mother. The mom Olympia Dukakis originates in Constance Congdon's new adaptation of the 1910 Maxim Gorky play Vassa Zheleznova doesn't exactly smack of sweetness. "I should have smothered you in your crib," she says early on to her oldest son. And although we know this is a comedy, we get the feeling that she means it. Only one generation out of serfdom, this Russian family is already being torn apart by greed. Vassa (a spirited Dukakis) is a frustrated and bullying matriarch, and her apathetic sons (an engaging Reg Rogers and John Keating) contribute nil to the family business. But Vassa and her daughter, Anna (a polished Marcia Pizzo), aren't about to be cheated out of the family's fortune, which, under Russian law, is bequeathed to the men. Thus begins the plotting of some very dirty business, which includes falsified wills, homicidal ploys, and other healthy doses of betrayal. Congdon's version is bitingly funny -- and also provides an interesting feminist viewpoint. Though we don't feel much hope at the end, we do get a better sense of how difficult it is to be a mother. Through June 13 at the Geary Theater, 415 Geary (at Powell), S.F. Tickets are $15-61; call 749-2228 or visit (K.M.) Reviewed June 2.

Not a Genuine Black Man. It's not easy being green, but try being a black kid in San Leandro in the early '70s. When Brian Copeland got there -- just a few months after the Summer of Love, he points out -- it was one of the most viciously racist suburbs in America. Now it's officially the most diverse. "Take that, San Francisco," Copeland chides. He's earned that attitude, not just for going through his hell of growing up, but also for extracting from it such affirmative, hilarious stuff. Copeland's rightfully popular one-man show, recently extended for another few weeks, is wrought from pain and rage, but never really succumbs to bitterness. "Is that black?" he asks, and proves that it is. Some of his best stereotype-busting material doesn't feel especially new, but it does feel good. Besides, it's the stereotypes that have passed their expiration dates: Copeland's title comes from an accusation recently flung at him by a cranky listener who called in to his KGO radio program. This show is his response. With help from declarative lighting and David Ford's direction, Copeland creates an affecting hybrid of the dramatic monologue and the rollicking stand-up act. Through June 26 at the Marsh, 1062 Valencia (at 22nd Street), S.F. Tickets are $15-22; call 826-5750 or visit (J.K.) Reviewed June 2.

Strange Travel Suggestions. Veteran traveler and best-selling author Jeff Greenwald may not be a trained actor, but he is a born storyteller. In his first solo show, he takes us all over the globe (though predominantly to the East) and tells tales of a freedom-fighter-turned-guru in India, Buddhist monks riding the first escalator in Nepal, a "Penis Saddhu" who pays homage to Shiva by performing feats of great strength with his genitals, the Dalai Lama (whom he interviews about Star Trek), and a bizarre homosexual encounter at Burning Man that climaxes in the ejaculation of horchata. His stories vary nightly, but are invariably entertaining, and while many of them have appeared in print, to hear him tell them live adds a new dimension. Greenwald has not only a gift for language, but also a great sense of rhythm and comic timing. The show might speak more to an audience familiar with Nepalese customs, religions of the East, and the random life experiences that one accumulates via immense jet lag, unusual climate conditions, and an inability to drink the local water, but it's accessible to all audiences and is sure to spark a traveling bug of the worst (or best) kind. Through June 9 at the Marsh, 1062 Valencia (at 22nd Street), S.F. Tickets are $15-22 sliding scale; call 826-5750 or visit (K.M.) Reviewed May 19.


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