Capsule Reviews 

Our critics weigh in on local theater.

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever! -- How could you possibly go wrong with a community theater show about a Christmas pageant featuring a cast of a couple dozen kids and a half-dozen adults -- or rather two such casts in rotation, with a lot of the same family names showing up three or four times in the program? Lots of ways, actually, but Lafayette's Town Hall Theatre Company makes it work with this sugary treat based on the 1972 children's book by Barbara Robinson. Even borderline grinches will find this one hard to resist, but should be warned that they'll be corralled into a rousing sing-along at the end. -- S.H. (Through December 24 at Town Hall Theatre; THTC.org or 925-283-1557.)

Emma -- The line between theater and life is very fine in Michael Fry's clever new stage adaptation of Jane Austen's Emma. Suggested by some as the predecessor to today's vast wave of "chick lit," Austen did in fact write about young women trying to make a place for themselves in a changing world by marrying well. But she did it slyly, using her novels to explore the restrictiveness of Regency-era British society, where women had few other options but to marry. She also wrote incisively about class, and that comes through strongly in Fry's gloss, where five contemporary young people decide to while away an afternoon playing out the beloved story of Emma, a charming meddler who fancies herself a matchmaker but has no idea of the true havoc she wreaks. The play could do with less unbelievable simpering, but the subtext around class is finely drawn, and it's a loving and clever tribute to the original. -- L.D. (Through December 19 at the Aurora; AuroraTheatre.org or 510-843-4822.)

Polk County -- The play starts with a beating and ends with a wedding. In between, it's stuffed with more voodoo, sass, and authentic blues than a fruitcake has chewy bits. It must be from Zora Neale Hurston, the unapologetic Roman candle of the Harlem Renaissance. As funny, brash, and tough as the writer herself, it's a musical tribute to the land and people that produced the blues. Polk County languished, at first in the US Copyright Office and then the Library of Congress, until a retiree and Hurstonphile named John Wayne found it in 1997. It merrily introduces audiences to the unforgettable characters and songs Hurston collected as a folklorist trawling the Depression-era South; a land of sawmills and turpentine stills and jooks, knife-wielding women and dreaming men. The Rep production captures all that vivid texture in a script dusted off by director Kyle Donnelly and dramaturge Cathy Madison, acted by a big, juicy cast largely imported from New York, and sung to music arranged by Chic Street Man. The singing is flawlessly intertwined with the story, the music rousing, and the set creates an intimate sense of place. -- L.D. (Through January 9; BerkeleyRep.org or 510-647-2949.)

Rake's Progress -- A 1951 Stravinsky opera in a neoclassical vein based on a series of 18th-century Hogarth etchings about the rise and fall of a gentleman of excess, The Rake's Progress is pretty weird to begin with, and Oakland Opera Theatre's version is weirder still, set in disco-era New York with comic-book word balloons and a soprano singing while riding a bicycle. It's more bizarre than funny, but still too goofy to get worked up about any teary arias if there's something distracting going on the background. The three-story set and cardboard-cutout props are a hoot, though it's sometimes hard to tell the sound effects from the set changes. Stravinsky's music is a delight and nicely sung in this scrappy production, though things get a bit tangled when several people are singing separate parts at once. -- S.H. (Through December 19 at Oakland Metro; OaklandOpera.org or 510-763-1146.)

Social Security -- Andrew Bergman got his big break collaborating with Mel Brooks on Blazing Saddles. His wicked sense of humor was already manifest in his Broadway play Social Security, about a sophisticated, childless couple who find themselves unexpectedly saddled with the wife's 78-year-old mother. Into the Kahns' chichi Manhattan apartment tumble Barbara's clenchingly square sister Trudy and Trudy's husband Martin. They're in the middle of a family emergency, and need to leave matriarch Sophie with the Kahns until things are settled. Bergman's dialogue is hilarious, and director Greg Schuh works the script for all available humor. So while the characters of Trudy and Martin are really caricatures, Betty Grandis and her praying-mantis physical tension is still really funny, and Robert Hamm's lugubrious, nasal Martin still has nice sympathetic moments. Catherine Bucher as Sophie, the elderly mother who isn't anxious to go back to Minneola, is actually the wisest of the batch. Loaded with surprise twists, groan-inducing jokes, and family tension, this one is an affectionate little gem for California Conservatory. -- L.D. (Through December 19 at the California Conservatory Theatre; CCT-SL.org or 510-632-8850.)

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