Review: Grand theater in small venues

Zeum Theater and Magic Theater each seat about 200, but over the weekend they both premiered grand productions.

At the Zeum, especially, ambition and quality rise to Broadway mega-theater proportions as the American Conservatory Theater Master of Fine Arts Program dazzles with a commedia-dell'arte-goes-Monty-Python version of Virginia Woolf's absurdly epic (or epically absurd) “Orlando.”

Bracketing Caitlin Talbot in the title role of the centuries-old man/woman, and Tovah Suttle as Sasha, the inconstant Russian seducer, a four-man cast/production team acts, sings and sound-sculpts a dizzying, hilarious storm.

Sarah Ruhl's adaptation and Ryan Rilette's direction create a “really big show” on Zeum's tiny stage, ably assisted by a riot of Callie Floor's costumes (mostly changed in front of the audience), ridiculously simple and effective sound effects and the new graduates' talent, heart, soul beaming onstage.

On opening night Saturday there wasn't a botched line in the 100-minute play — almost all of which compels, although a 10-minute trim toward the end would improve the production.

First among equals, Dan Morrison was sensational as Archduke (no idea what's so funny about “I shot an elk in Sweden,” but Morrison had me in stitches with it), and the Archduchess (oh, yes), a tragic-hilarious Othello.

Also notable: Erik Saxvik's Queen Elizabeth, Desdemona, and ensemble work; James Wagner's Captain and Shakespeare; Jeff Irwin's bravely (and effectively) low-key acting.

Over at Magic Theatre, there's a surprisingly similar situation: It's a big, colorful, multimedia production on a tiny stage by a small, dynamic cast taking on many roles. The world premiere of Edna O'Brien’s “Tir na nÓg” (“Land of Youth”) is directed to perfection by Magic Theatre Artistic Director Chris Smith.

The appealing story of young women in rural Ireland, of course, is far more realistic and linear than that of Orlando, and it's also more personal and affecting. Allison Jean White plays Kate, the heroine of “Country Girls,” the basis of the play, O'Brien's first work (of 24), about the difficult coming-of-age of a poor village girl on her way to Dublin and a better life.

Summer Serafin is Baba, Kate's riotously mischievous friend; the other seven actor/singers play multiple roles, of nuns, family members, and others. Even with a multitude of characters and a fast-moving story, “Tir na nÓg” always stays in focus, keeps involving and satisfying the audience.

IF YOU GO

Tir na nOg (“Land of Youth”)

Where: Magic Theatre, Building D, Fort Mason Center, Marina Boulevard and Buchanan Street, San Francisco

When: 8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday; 2:30 and 7 p.m. Sunday; closes March 23

Tickets: $20 to $45

Contact: (415) 441-8822 or www.magictheatre.org.

Orlando

Where: Zeum Theater, Fourth and Howard streets, San Francisco

When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday; plus 8 p.m. March 5 and 2 p.m. March 15; closes March 15

Tickets: $15.50 to $20.50

Contact: (415) 749-2228 or www.act-sf.org

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