Agit-opera 

An antiwar, pro-labor masterpiece

FRI 10/7

Few theatrical premieres have achieved such notoriety as The Cradle Will Rock did in 1937. The US government literally shut the production down, locking the doors of New York's Maxine Elliott's Theatre and stationing troops in front of them, lest Mark Blitzstein's pro-labor operetta achieve its intended impact. Washington, however, did not have the last word. On June 16, 1937, much of the show's cast, led by Blitzstein and director Orson Welles, marched uptown with an ever-swelling crowd to the Venice Theatre, where an impromptu performance featured the composer narrating from the piano. It's the stuff of legend, immortalized in Tim Robbins' 1999 film Cradle Will Rock.

This Friday, The Cradle Will Rock rocks on at UC Berkeley's Zellerbach Playhouse. Lura Dolas directs an ensemble of 28 students from UC's Department of Theater, Dance, and Performance Studies, and Professor Leon Litwack, a Pulitzer Prize-winning labor historian, makes his stage debut as Professor Scoot. Accompaniment is on a single piano, stage center, played by music director Mark Sumner.

Blitzstein characterized Cradle -- dedicated to Bertolt Brecht -- as a cross between the highly contrasting styles of agitprop, operetta, and musical theater. "It's a striking and difficult work," Dolas acknowledges, "filled with unexpected juxtapositions of contrary elements. Blitzstein's very angular, muscular music sounds somewhat like Weill's highly chromatic collaborations with Brecht. As in their work, the words are packed with meaning and irony that needs to be conveyed."

Perhaps most ironic is Cradle's contemporary relevance. The politically charged script, set in Steeltown, USA, spotlights religious demagoguery, the accumulation of wealth by a tiny percentage at the top, bitter debates about whether US troops should be active in other countries and who should profit from our wars, and the struggle between corporate greed and the people's rights. The show's militaristic rallying cry, "Make the World Safe for Democracy," takes on even deeper meaning in an era where Homeland Security signifies that no one is safe.

Although the work makes strong demands on its performers, there is no need to adjust expectations, simply because this is a college production. "We have a well-kept secret," explains Duras. "We are one of the major theater schools that sends students to the most prestigious MFA acting programs in the country. My office is covered with pictures of students who are working in theater, film, and television."

The Cradle Will Rock runs through October 16. For tickets, visit Theater.berkeley.edu or call 510-642-9925. -- Jason Victor Serinus

10/7, 10/8

Honest Truth

Voltaire at TAC

Voltaire's 1759 novel Candide effectively used satire to point out the limitations of a naive, overly cheery worldview, given the reality of war and the inevitability of human suffering. A new Rough and Tumble production of Candide -- based on Len Jenkins' Obie-award winning adaptation -- may not be optimistic, but promises to be interesting, with live radio, music, puppets, and other comic effects. The play runs Friday and Saturday at the Temescal Arts Center (511 48th St., Oakland). Admission is free; call 510-601-1444 for additional info. -- Eric K. Arnold

SAT 10/8

Are We Not Men?

The Clash wasn't the only band that mattered during the late '70s and early '80s, as fans of pioneering new wave/punk band Devo will attest. Among those fans are Mongoloid, a tribute band that goes to great lengths to re-create the Spudboy concert experience. Plastic radiation suits? Molded toupees? You betcha. Mongoloid's obsessive fixation with the authors of "Uncontrollable Urge" and "Whip It" isn't limited to quirk-core; the band opens the show, happening Saturday at the Stork Club (2330 Telegraph Ave., Oakland), as Mongolounge, turning the camp quotient up a notch with Tony Bennett-ized versions of Devo tunes. Now that's devo-tion. -- Eric K. Arnold

SUN 10/9

Gotta Dance

Shawl-Anderson is one of the oldest, and most celebrated, of the East Bay's dance schools. Since 1958, it has been a leading Bay Area company for both modern and traditional dance, fostering community-based education programs while racking up accolades like the Isadora Duncan Award, the California Dance Educators Association's Heritage Award, and recently, a Ruth Beckford Award for "Extraordinary Contributions in the Field of Dance." This Sunday from 2-5 p.m., the school holds an open house at its Berkeley studio (2704 Alcatraz Ave.) which will showcase artist-in-residencies, as well as being a fund-raiser for scholarship programs. Refreshments will be served. Shawl-Anderson.org or 510-654-5921. -- Eric K. Arnold

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