This holiday theater season, don’t miss the ‘Sultana of Silicon Valley’

Or ‘A Woman in Black,’ ‘The Magic Lamp,’ ‘The Cassandra Sessions’ or ‘A Christmas Carol’

Like the song says, it’s the most magical time of the year. Accordingly, several best theater bets this month involve myth, enchantment, the divine and/or the supernatural: “The Magic Lamp” (a genie); “It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play” (a rescue angel); “The Cassandra Sessions: Recording This World” (a mythical Greek prophet); “The Woman in Black” (a malevolent ghost); and of course the requisite “A Christmas Carol” (multiple ghosts).

The Magic Lamp

Panto is a traditional holiday performance genre in England, a family-friendly (and occasionally bawdy) mashup of story, slapstick, music, dance and assorted comic antics. So it’s great that the Presidio Theatre — the newly restored Spanish Colonial Revival-style building in the Presidio, built by the Army in 1939 to entertain the troops — is staging a panto version of the Arabian tale of Aladdin and his amazing lamp. With an original script and music by Mason Williams, the parody is updated to contemporary San Francisco and features some of the Bay Area’s best comic performers dancing and singing their way from swing to hip hop to “zombie dancing” to musical theatre jazz, with minor acrobatics and lots of moving parts onstage, wheels and such, according to Rotimi Agbabiaka, who plays the title character. Tamroz Torfeh directs; musical director is Bill Keck of “Beach Blanket Babylon” fame.

Agbabiaka’s Aladdin is a bike messenger, a romantic young man looking for love, finding it, pursuing the girl. It’s a story, says the actor, for the part of us that’s full of wonder. Our hero must deal with the evil villain who is, naturally, from LA (played by the inimitable Danny Scheie). Other stellar cast members include Renée Lubin (of “Beach Blanket Babylon”) as the genie and Rinabeth Apostol as the all-powerful “Sultana of Silicon Valley.”

There’s plenty of room, during the two acts, for actors to improvise and for audiences to participate. Be prepared to shriek “Look behind you!”

December 1-31, $10-$75,, Presidio Theatre, 99 Moraga Ave., The Presidio.

San Francisco company of "A Christmas Carol" (Photo by Joan Marcus)

A Christmas Carol

The Dickens classic never seems to get old — it’s as relevant to our times as ever and lends itself to inventive adaptations. This lavish one, adapted by Jack Thorne, originally directed and conceived by Matthew Warchus, directed here by Jamie Manton and nominated for several 2020 Tony Awards, is different from any other version I’ve seen. It’s infused with live music (Christmas carols, bells, the works) and is beautifully lit and choreographed, full of humor and angs, and includes a lot of new dialogue along with Dickens’ own text. Perhaps most of all it is a potent reminder of our present-day need for compassion and generosity.

Dec. 1-26

Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor St., San Francisco

$56 and up

(Left to right) Todd Cerveris, Sarita Ocón, Moses Villarama, Luisa Sermol and Phil Wong provide live foley-style sound effects and play dozens of roles in TheatreWorks Silicon Valley’s “It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play.” (Photo by Paciano Triunfo)

It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play

Along with “A Christmas Carol” and a few other beloved stories, this 2011 adaptation, by Joe Landry, of the 1946 movie starring Jimmy Stewart — which itself was based on an earlier short story by Philip Van Doren Stern — has joined the ranks of holiday staples for theaters nationwide; TheatreWorks is the latest local regional theater to stage it. (Town Hall Theatre in Lafayette is running its own production simultaneously.) The show re-envisions the movie script as a 1940s-era radio broadcast, complete with live foley sound effects and period set, props and costumes. “Joe Landry pulled the heart of the story into this inventive work — five actors (some playing as many as 15 different roles) telling the story through light and sound and characters,” says TheatreWorks’ director Giovanna Sardelli.

It’s a story that’s both dark and sentimental, melancholy and ultimately feel-good, as we follow failing businessman George Bailey right up to his dark night of the soul and beyond.

“The conceit is that it’s a radio play performed for a live studio audience,” Sardelli continues. “It starts as though the real live audience is the studio audience for that night’s broadcast.” So we spectators become, in a sense, part of the play.

“It seems like this is a good play for this particular holiday season,” she adds, “when we’re still in the pandemic.” The original story came after World War II, a time when people were disconnected, in despair. “A Wonderful Life,” she suggests, offers a road map to overcoming despair, to finding, albeit painfully, that it’s indeed a wonderful life.

TheatreWorks Silicon Valley

Dec. 1-26, Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Rd., Palo Alto, (650) 463-1960


The Cassandra Sessions: Recording This World

Shotgun Players never fails to offer new and intriguing works; this one is by Shotgun performer, singer and writer Beth Wilmurt, who was inspired to create this new solo show by the songs of late Berkeley singer/songwriter Malvina Reynolds, perhaps best known for “Little Boxes” (“Little boxes on the hillside/Little boxes made of ticky tacky/Little boxes on the hillside/Little boxes all the same”).

Wilmurt, ever the experimentalist, does not impersonate Reynolds; instead she draws upon Cassandra, the Greek mythical seer, cursed to have no one believe her prophecies. The real-life Reynolds found her leftie political/musical voice in her 50s; in Wilmurt’s conception, Cassandra, before she dies, wants to record Reynolds’ songs, recognizing the truth of them and intending to encapsulate her messages within them.

Reynolds’ own record label was Cassandra Records.

In the play, which she co-created with sound engineer Jake Rodriguez, Wilmurt says she does not intend to portray Cassandra per se. “I’m a Cassandra living out of time and in our time and in all time — in existential space and time,” she explains. Just as Cassandra saw the future but no one would believe her, so too are truths hard to distill in society right now, Wilmurt points out.

She covers 15 of Reynolds’ songs, of which her favorite is “There’s No Hole in My Head” (“Everybody thinks my head’s full of nothin’/Wants to put his special stuff in/Fill the space with candy wrappers/Keep out sex and revolution …”) “It’s a really creative, unusual, fun, empowering song,” she comments.

Reynolds kept singing and truth-telling until she died, at age 78, in 1978, in Berkeley, where people believed her.

Dec. 2-26


Shotgun Players, 1901 Ashby Ave., Berkeley

The Woman in Black

After all that merriment, why not allow yourself to be deliciously terrified during the holidays? This gothic thriller, based on Susan Hill’s 1983 novel, has been playing on the West End for more than 30 years and was made into a movie, starring Daniel Radcliffe, in 2012. Now the traveling show is presented in A.C.T.’s more intimate space, the Strand, the better to frighten you close-up. The two-hander was adapted for the stage by Stephen Mallatratt, directed by Robin Herford (who originally commissioned Mallatratt to adapt the novel) and is performed by Herford and Antony Eden.

In the story, a young lawyer is sent off to an estate with the cheery name of Eel Marsh House, out on the dark and windswept moors, to settle the affairs of a recently deceased client. Soon enough, he is deeply unsettled by what is evidently a ghost — the apparently vengeful woman in black herself — and must solve the mystery of her other-worldly existence and get back to London with his faculties intact. The stage version ought to be full of scary sounds (screams in the night, the hoofbeats of invisible horses, etc.) and unnerving visual effects.

The Strand, 1127 Market St., San Francisco


Dec. 15-Jan. 16


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