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Salt Lake theatergoers have an unusual opportunity this week to see two overlapping productions (both in the same building at that) which deal - from opposite perspectives - with fairly recent issues.

In the intimate Babcock Theatre, located on the lower level of Pioneer Memorial Theatre building on the University of Utah campus, is Timothy Mason's contemporary drama, "The Less Than Human Club."You don't need to look much further than East High School (and a few other schools in the region as well), to find some kids who were made to feel "less than human" during the uproar last year regarding student clubs in public schools.

Mason's well-crafted play focuses on lack of self-esteem and a variety of social issues within a group of high school students in 1967-68.

It's playing through Nov. 3 (and an extra performance has been added - see related box on this page).

Meanwhile, Arthur Miller's classic drama, "The Crucible," will be opening upstairs on PMT's Lees Main Stage. The characters themselves are caught up in the dark days of the infamous Salem Village witch hunts - but Miller's play touches on problems and issues just as relevant 300 years later.

"The Crucible" was inspired by the legislative "witch hunt" atmosphere that permeated Sen. Joseph McCarthy's controversial anti-communism hearings in the mid-1950s. What this period shared in common with the Salem witch hunts is that the real facts were often clouded by innuendo and outright lies. Both were times when society was caught up in fear, bigotry and hysteria.

Remember all the so-called "facts" being bandied about last year during the heated debate over clubs in Utah's schools?

Not only do both "The Crucible" and "The Less Than Human Club" provide interesting insights into the human condition, but both productions will have post-performance discussions that should be exciting and enlightening. (Both debates are free of charge, but whether there'll be any seats available is questionable.)

The forum for "The Less Than Human Club" is scheduled following the matinee performance on Saturday, Nov. 2. Since the performance starts at 2 p.m., the debate will probably begin about 3:45. The panel will include playwright Mason, coming from New York; Craig Slaight, artistic director of the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco, who originally commissioned the work for ACT's Young Conservatory, and Mark McPhail of the U. of U.'s department of communication.

The discussion for "The Crucible" will be held on Thursday night, Nov. 14, following that evening's performance. Audience members will be invited to join in a debate with actors and PTC staff.

- THERE'S A DISASTER waiting to happen up at the University of Utah.

Not an earthquake, but something that could certainly shake up a lot of theatergoers.

There's bound to be an evening (or maybe even a Saturday afternoon) when there are productions not only upstairs and downstairs in the Pioneer Memorial Theatre, but also at Kingsbury Hall . . . and a football game at Rice Stadium.

Parking - as anyone who visits the campus should know - is fairly limited. There is a parking lot immediately south of PMT (and season subscribers with "director's club" access can usually park right there).

Kingsbury Hall has implemented a free shuttle bus for patrons who park in the Rice Stadium lot, with buses making several trips both before and after performances and events in the newly renovated auditorium.

But I wouldn't want to be anywhere near the place when there's also a football game in the mix.

For all Kingsbury Hall performances, I have recommended arriving at least half an hour to 45 minutes early, just to allow time to get parked and catch the shuttle.

When it gets really crowded, I'd even opt for taking a UTA bus . . . if you can find a parking place downtown, that is.

There are no easy answers.

At some point the U. should seriously consider a parking structure of some kind near Kingsbury Hall. (Somebody once suggested an underground parking terrace beneath Presidents Circle, which would probably be way too costly).

- FOR THEATERGOERS who enjoy making the short (and relatively cheap) flight into the Bay Area to see touring Broadway shows in San Francisco, there's good news: The 70-year-old Orpheum Theatre at 1192 Market St. is closing shortly for a 14-month renovation project that will make it capable of showcasing such mammoth productions as "Miss Saigon," "Beauty and the Beast" and "Sunset Boulevard."

While "The Phantom of the Opera" is still playing a long-run "sit-down" engagement at the Curran, located a few blocks away on Geary, the Orpheum, a former Pantages vaudeville house, has been used only sporadically in recent years for touring shows.

"Phantom" fits very nicely in the relatively compact Curran, but the other shows place even heavier demands on the stage, literally, due to the excessive weight of the scenery involved.

Given the price of downtown San Francisco real estate, expanding the Curran is obviously out of the question.

For the Orpheum project, announced a week ago in the San Francisco Chronicle, the stage-house will be expanded into the theater itself. (Adding onto the back is not feasible because the Orpheum abuts the United Nations Plaza at the Civic Center). Several rows of seating will be lost in the process, but the numbers of seats aren't as critical in a long-run engagement as they are in a limited, two- to three-week run.

The project is expected to cost from $15 to $20 million and should be finished early in 1998. Other new amenities will include improved loading docks (something the touring companies should really appreciate), all new carpeting and seating and 14 additional spaces in the women's rest rooms.

I've never seen any live productions in the Orpheum (but I caught both "Jerome Robbins' Broadway" and "Will Rogers Follies" at the equally venerable and ornate Golden Gate just a couple of blocks away).

I did, however, see my first Cinerama movie there in the summer of 1955 during a family trip. Dad gave me the choice of seeing the world premiere of "The McConnell Story" just down the street at the fabled (and long-since razed) Fox Theatre or "Cinerama Holiday" at the Orpheum.

Cinerama had not yet arrived in Salt Lake City, and I knew it would never come to Twin Falls, Idaho, so I opted for the latter.



Drama extended

The Babcock Theatre's regional premiere of Timothy Mason's "The Less Than Human Club," which played to sold-out audiences on its opening weekend, has added one extra performance this week.

The additional show will be Wednesday, Oct. 30, at 7:30 p.m. (the same night "The Crucible" opens upstairs on the Lees Main Stage of Pioneer Memorial Theatre).

For tickets or further information, call 581-6961.