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Duels in the Sun 

This summer it's all pirates and vampires—and, sure, dying of AIDS—on area stages


The dukes are up—in more ways than one.

This summer, Peter Pan will take on Peter Pan, pirates will battle pirates, and dying bohemian squatters will attempt to outmaneuver other dying bohemian squatters. Yes, the Bay Area's various theater companies will be going head-to-head over the next few months, all in an effort to attract audiences to their various halls, parks or amphitheaters.

What are the odds, though, that from San Francisco to Healdsburg there are at least four instances of the same play being staged by two different theater groups, all within easy driving distance of each other? Two Peter Pans, two Rents, two Taming of the Shrews (both with pirates!) and even two Les Liaisons Dangereuses, though one of them boasts the juicy, aberrational addition of vampires.

That these theatrical duels are taking place when the North Bay theater scene is recovering from last week's stunning sucker-punch dismissal of Elizabeth Craven, artistic director of the Sixth Street Playhouse, lends a bit of real-life drama to all of the nose-to-nose, same-play match-ups. Craven's force-out, under mysterious circumstances—Sixth Street's board of directors declines to give any public reason for the action—has sparked a whispery firestorm of rumors, guesses, speculations and accusations.

With everyone appearing to have some strong opinion on the subject, and with more details sure to unfold as the summer begins, the stage is set for a season of high drama. Thankfully, most of that drama will be taking place on actual stages. And it all starts with Rent.

Jonathan Larson's 1996 Tony award&– and Pulitzer Prize&–winning musical is based loosely on the opera La Bohème, with AIDS stepping in where consumption originally stood. The rock-fueled story follows a band of loosely knit artists and musicians, wrestling with love, life and death as they attempt to avoid eviction from the condemned New York apartment building they call home. In the first of two Sonoma County productions, Sixth Street Playhouse presents the popular, still-controversial show beginning May 28.

Six-weeks after that show closes, Rent will be raised again in Healdsburg, with the Raven Players staging their own version of the show at the Raven Theater. This marks a major step forward for the Ravens, who will kick their summer season open with the North Bay premiere of Andrew Lloyd Webber's beloved Cats, beginning on June 25.

In the midst of its annual Shakespeare Festival, in a cheerful outdoor corner of San Rafael, Marin Shakespeare Company fires the first shot in the looming North Bay pirate battle, launching a Pirates of the Caribbean version of Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew, starting in late July, which is immediately followed by Napa Valley Shakespeare's own piratical production of Shrew, itself a reworking of the monstrously popular Shrew staged two years ago by the Sebastopol Shakespeare Festival, again directed by Jennifer King, with Dodds Delzell as Petruchio and Danielle Cain as Katherine.

Filled with swordplay and sexy double-entendres, the latter will be the one-and-only offering of the newish Napa Valley Shakespeare, while the former will be one of three plays presented in Marin County. Joining Shrew will be Tom Stoppard's Travesties, a kind of sequel to The Importance of Being Ernest, and Shakespeare's Anthony and Cleopatra (itself a sequel to Julius Caesar).

Santa Rosa Junior College's prestigious training ground, Summer Repertory Theater, now in its 38th year, will be staging five shows this summer, two of which have the interesting fortune of being performed elsewhere in the area (though in significantly different productions). Along with the usual multiflavored blend of musicals (Forever Plaid, The Full Monty, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee), SRT's celebrated international assemblage of actors will be doing Les Liaisons Dangereuses (with vampires), a new version of the classic tale of Parisian seduction and deceit, but with ancient bloodsuckers instead of the usual, run-of-the-mill French aristocrats. For those hankering for a more traditional Liaisons, Marin's Porchlight Theater presents the same show without vampires beginning June 17.

Summer Repertory also stages J. M. Barrie's original Peter Pan: or, The Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up. Not the beloved Mary Martin musical, this is the play that premiered in 1906 and inspired San Francisco's Threesixty Theatre's currently running Peter Pan, a much-hyped high-tech version performed in a large tent, with impressive projections that heighten the sense of flight when the various pajama'd runaways take to the skies.

For those keeping score, there might have been a third Peter Pan in the area, had Mill Valley's annual Mountain Play not scrapped its original plans and switched from the flying boys to singing gamblers. Beginning this weekend, in the Cushing Amphitheater atop Mt. Tamalpais, the Mountain Play launches Guys and Dolls, and this looks to be a visually dazzling presentation, with more wide lapels and kitschy costumes than are normally allowed in one place.

Apparently, a few companies in the region are not doing any plays performed by another troupe. One is the Sonoma County Repertory Theater. Its annual Sebastopol Shakespeare Festival features the light-and-dark double-shot of the Bard, with The Comedy of Errors (the twistiest of Shakespeare's mistaken-twins comedies) and Macbeth, complete with witches, curses and severed heads. Festivities begin July 7 with Macbeth, then switch to Comedy on Aug. 18.

Finally, the storied Ross Valley Players present A. R. Gurney's raucous social satire The Middle Ages, set in the trophy room of an exclusive men's club. Staged in RVP's charming Old Barn Theater, The Middle Ages opens on July 16.

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