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Shockheaded Peter & Noche Flamenca

Shockheaded Peter
When the house lights go down for this British import at ACT, the false proscenium that outlines the Victorian diorama set remains lit for a very long time. Eventually nervous giggles bubble up from the audience. Julian Bleach as the creepy narrator then enters (looking like a more formal Riff Raff from The Rocky Horror Picture Show) and enunciates, "I am the greatest actor ... [long, long pause] who ever existed." And so it goes. This moment exemplifies the setup for every joke in Shockheaded Peter -- the company simply waits until somebody laughs. Like everything else in this too-clever production, it grows old very quickly. An adaptation of Heinrich Hoffman's 19th-century collection of cautionary verses for children Der Struwwelpeter, Shockheaded Peter seems like a neat idea. Julian Crouch and Graeme Gilmour's designs -- painted flats for backgrounds and furnishings; ghostly, comical puppets; and macabre, ragged costumes -- are impeccable. The look is reminiscent of a Tim Burton movie, and Shockheaded Peter's own story has been reworked to resemble that of the Penguin's in Burton's Batman Returns. But the direction by Crouch and Phelim McDermott is deliberate, overthought, plodding, and airless. There's none of Burton's manic comedic energy. You get tired of the narrative portions of the show before the musical performances by art-pop trio the Tiger Lillies (the eerie falsetto of Martyn Jacques keeps your interest), but even the songs start to sound alike after a while. Each tale of a misbehaving child (the various sins include thumb sucking, fidgeting, playing with matches, and bullying) results in a macabre death, and soon every piece seems to end "... and he [or she] was ... [long, long pause] dead!" Shockheaded Peter's self-conscious artiness murders any sense of fun.

Through July 16 at the Geary Theater, 415 Geary (near Mason), S.F. Admission is $14-55; call 749-2228.

-- Joe Mader

Noche Flamenca
Flamenco at its best is a fiercely personal, self-involved form; amazingly, the 7-year-old Madrid troupe Noche Flamenca boasts enough individualistic dancers to cast a soap opera. There's Alejandra Ramirez, mouselike but spunky; Noe Barroso, young, bewitching, frustrated by his romantic inexperience; Eva Marin, mature, knowing, and elegant; and Bruno Argenta, roguish and suave. The common denominator among them is that they are all nearly worthy of the show's reigning star, Soledad Barrio, wife of Artistic Director Martin Santangelo and the very embodiment of duende. Barrio, who performs alone only once during the program, in the climactic Solea, looks dejected when not dancing, dutifully clapping along with the exquisitely soulful musicians in the background. Center stage, she prowls hips-first, with a deeply arched back, and her long balances and impossibly tiny clicks of the heels command equal suspense. But the show's inspired choreography, much of it by Santangelo, serves her co-stars well. The opening Alegrias gives just a provocative hint of a plot, Ramirez and Barroso alternately chasing and defying one another, rarely in unison and yet somehow always in sync. They reunite by dance's end, but Eva Marin looms suggestively in the distance. Flamenco die-hards in the audience reverently stomped along to the inventive rhythms; those newer to the form are likely to be taken in by the company's family atmosphere, worthy of an exotic miniseries. Mediate the experience as you will, but catch this show before it heads for its annual run in New York.

Noche Flamenca performs Tuesday through Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 5 p.m. through July 15 at Theater Artaud, 450 Florida (at Mariposa), S.F. Tickets are $20-25; call 621-7797.

-- Rachel Howard


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