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Our critics weigh in on local theater 

The Crucible. Set during the Salem witch hunts of 1692, Arthur Miller's The Crucible (1953) depicts the downward slide of a small Massachusetts community from relative normality to mass hysteria. Miller's ghoulish and brilliant drama is commonly read as an indictment of intolerant, fearmongering regimes. It was written in response to one -- namely, the wave of anti-communism spawned by Sen. Joseph McCarthy in the early 1950s. But the play resonates on many levels, most eloquently -- in the case of the Playhouse's articulate, witch-on-a-broomstick-paced production -- in the depiction of mixed-up adolescence at a time when the word "teenager" didn't even exist. As Salem's gaggle of impressionable pubescents, Mindy Lim, Skye Noel Smith, Lauren English, and Sigrid Sutter penetrate the dark dynamics of what it means to be in -- or, in the case of Janna Sobel's engaging turn as the awkward and terrified Mary Warren, out of -- a clique. The grown-up characters in this production seem flat in comparison to these spirited, devilish teens. Through Oct. 22 at the Playhouse, 536 Sutter (between Powell and Mason), S.F. Tickets are $36; call 677-9596 or visit (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed Oct. 5.

Doctor Atomic. This new opera by composer John Adams and director/librettist Peter Sellars explores the moral conflict inherent in the development and deployment of the first atomic bomb. Setting such diverse source material as declassified government documents, passages from the Bhagavad-Gita, and poetry by John Donne and Baudelaire to Adams' sci-fi-inspired orchestral score, Doctor Atomic focuses on the tortured physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, the man responsible for overseeing the design and construction of the atomic bomb at Los Alamos, N.M. The opera is full of ingenious ideas, from choreographer Lucinda Childs' references to Native American dance to the radioactive colors of James F. Ingalls' lighting design. But besides one haunting, sublime scene -- in which Oppenheimer, personified by the superb Canadian baritone Gerald Finley, confronts his tortured soul alone in the deserted laboratory under the shadow of "The Gadget" -- the opera never touches the core of the characters' internal struggle. Through Oct. 22 at the War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness (between Grove and Fulton), S.F. Tickets are $25-235; call 864-3330 or visit (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed Oct. 12.

Family Butchers. In renowned Irish novelist and playwright Edna O'Brien's Family Butchers, receiving its American premiere at the Magic Theatre, a once-wealthy but now-bankrupt middle-aged couple, Jamie and Lil, await the arrival of four grown-up children for a long overdue get-together at the threadbare family seat. What should be a joyful reunion -- after all, one daughter has come all the way from Johannesburg to be there -- almost instantly degenerates into a brooding, booze-sodden storm of sibling rivalry, thwarted ambitions, and loneliness. The play might be set in another time and place -- 1970s rural Ireland to be precise -- yet it feels very much about the here and now: O'Brien's empathetic yet unsentimental portrayal of family strife seems as contemporary as it is eternal. One scene, in which Lil suddenly and inexplicably turns on her favorite daughter, Emer, feels out of place; nevertheless, director Paul Whitworth's fluid mise-en-scène coupled with fiery performances from all cast members -- Robertson Dean is especially dangerous as patriarch Jamie, a character who wouldn't seem out of place in a Eugene O'Neill play -- give the piece a quality that is at times reminiscent of a sad old ballad and at others a lively jig. Through Oct. 23 at the Magic Theatre, Fort Mason Center, Marina & Buchanan, S.F. Tickets are $26-40; call 441-8822 or visit (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed Oct. 12.

Not the More Lovely: A Circus Sideshow. Circus Proboscis' Not the More Lovely: A Circus Sideshow is performance art in the old-fashioned, Yoko Ono sense of the word. It's the sort of show in which the expressions "black tea" and "Heimlich maneuver" coexist unremarkably in the same sentence; the performers spend much of the time squatting, sticking out their tongues, and rolling their eyes as if they were gargoyles; and everything feels like a scene out of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Loosely based on a little-known version of the Pandora's box myth in which the eponymous box, as the program notes explain, contains "all the good and evil blended together in one consummate whole forming the irrepressible force of nature," the production combines physical theater, slow-burning live indie rock music, and sublimely grotesque hand-drawn animation into a strange audiovisual stew. Some of you might wish that Pandora had kept this particular box shut and thrown away the key. But whether they're spitting water at one another, fluttering like hummingbirds in vintage-style chiffon dresses, or having conversations about cheesecake in pseudo-British accents, these vaudevillians throw themselves into their carnival as if the future of humanity depended upon it. Through Oct. 22 at Noh Space, 2840 Mariposa (at Florida), S.F. Tickets are $12-15; call 662-6826 or visit (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed Oct. 12.

The Tribute to Frank, Sammy, Joey & Dean. Sandy Hackett's swingin' tribute to the Rat Pack takes us back to a time when men wore tuxedos in the desert, women could be one of two things (a lady or a tramp), and Celine Dion was just a golden apple in Las Vegas' hungry eye. Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Joey Bishop, and Dean Martin are brought back to life by God -- and the talents of a quartet of impersonators -- for one more night of highballing at the Sands Hotel. The concert-style production, featuring a live 12-piece band, perfectly captures the spirit of a long-lost era -- from Johnny Edwards' glossy Dean Martin pompadour to what would now be considered terribly un-PC gaffs about black Jews. These particular tribute artists aren't necessarily dead ringers for Frank and company, but if you close your eyes and listen to Brian Duprey's silk-voiced renditions of "My Way" and "Come Fly With Me," you almost feel like you've been transported, martini in hand, to another time and place. In an open-ended run at the Post Street Theatre, 450 Post (at Powell), S.F. Tickets are $35-60; call 771-6900 or visit (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed Aug. 24.

Our Little Theater, 287 Ellis (at Taylor), 921-8234.


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