Beyond The Fourth Wall 

Our critics review local theater productions.

9 Parts of Desire -- A Bedouin who has divorced two husbands, a gravel-voiced Iraqi expat in London drinking Scotch and explaining that Saddam had to go, an Iraqi-American glued to the television looking for family members and wondering if yoga will lessen her terrible despair. This is the Gulf War we haven't seen. The Iraqi-American writer Heather Raffo based her solo show on ten years of interviews with Iraqi women, weaving together stories that as likely to address love as conflict. The descriptions of atrocities committed under Saddam's regime rival anything that has happened since; from rape to the incineration of people hiding in a bomb shelter, Raffo's script is pitiless. And yet this is also one of her work's great strengths, this fearlessness, this determination to bring the evil out of the shadows and watch it squirm. -- L.D. (Through March 5 at the Berkeley Rep; BerkeleyRep.org or 510-647-2949.)

Around the World in Eighty Days -- Having enjoyed a long run in Sacramento, Mark Brown's adaptation of the Jules Verne classic makes its local debut in this handsome Center REP production directed by newly anointed artistic director Michael Butler. Kelly Tighe's set is a knockout. The comedy is broad and often downright silly, with outrageous accents, random celebrity impressions, and enough running jokes that some are bound to work. -- S.H. (Through March 4 at the Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts; DLRCA.org or 925-943-7469.)

Hamlet -- Points to Impact for attempting one of Shakespeare's longest and most challenging works in a compact and contemporary form. People like Kenneth Branagh do Hamlet in four hours; Artistic director Melissa Hillman has got it down to two and a half (alas, poor Yorick), and it still makes sense. But Hamlet is a butt-killer under the best of circumstances, and the basement of LaVal's hardly qualifies as the best of circumstances. And the Impact formula that's emerging -- lots of rushing about, angry music at every turn, an explanatory montage before the first line of text is spoken -- doesn't serve the melancholy Dane as well as it did the other shows. The unevenness of the casting also works against the show. While some actors are very strong, their presence highlights the struggles of others. -- L.D. (Through March 18 at LaVal's; ImpactTheatre.com or 510-464-4468.)

Loveplay -- It may be a many-splendored thing, but love also can be a chore, a transaction, or a royal pain in the ass. This point is made with wit and a refreshing lack of goo in Moira Buffini's terribly smart and funny Loveplay, now at TheatreFIRST's new space in Old Oakland. Loveplay is not a play, exactly, but a series of ten vignettes that are more related than they first appear. Beginning in 79 AD with a Roman soldier attempting to buy sexual attentions with unfamiliar coin, and ending at a very awkward party in an expensive modern-day dating agency, six actors play 32 different lovers. The settings range from a forest clearing to a flower-power squat, each in the same geographic location; over two thousand years, what starts as a Roman latrine becomes an abbey, an urban townhouse, an artist's garret in the bad part of town, and so on. By and large, the ambiguous endings honestly reflect what love is like in the real world: uncertain, unfinished, unpredictable, part of a larger comedy we can't always appreciate. But here it's a delight. -- L.D. (Through March 12 at TheatreFIRST; TheatreFIRST.com or 510-436-5085.)

The Master Builder -- A gem of elegant interpersonal warfare, Henrik Ibsen's The Master Builder explores both the price of success and the playwright's interest in abnormal psychology. Although just as emotionally sharp as anything else in his quiver, The Master Builder also is accessible and darkly humorous, especially in a new translation from ex-Bay Area dramaturg Paul Walsh. And Ibsen could have written the architect Halvard Solness for the subtly regal James Carpenter, who heads up a solid cast under the direction of Barbara Oliver. At the height of his career, Halvard fears that he is to be consumed by the younger generation. It's a fear made more real by the news that his young draftsman Ragnar would like to start designing some buildings himself. The play is a tense and beautifully crafted story of a powerful man's downfall, and this production a stunning, magnetic interpretation. -- L.D. (Through March 5 at the Aurora; AuroraTheatre.org or 510-843-4822.)

My Fair Lady -- Diablo Light Opera Company celebrates the fiftieth anniversary of the classic Lerner and Loewe adaptation of Shaw's Pygmalion with a handsome production helmed by Dianna Shuster. All the favorites are exceedingly well sung, the sets and costumes are terrific, and there are some fine dance numbers -- all the perks of a world where the entire marketplace bursts into song at the drop of a top hat. Not as much attention is given to the humor and heart of the play, so the viewer winds up paying as little mind to the plight of poor Eliza Doolittle (Angelique Lucia), bullied into ladylike poise and diction, as does her imperious tutor Henry Higgins (John Hetzler). -- S.H. (Through March 18 at the Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts; DLRCA.org or 925-943-7469.)

Strange Travel Suggestions -- Travelogue author Jeff Greenwald has been all around the world, and he could tell you some stories. That's just what he's doing in this evening of off-the-cuff tales from his travels, the subject of which is determined by audience volunteers' spins of an elaborately painted Wheel of Fortune so that each night is a different show altogether. His stories are funny, haunting, and suffused with spirituality, and, like any good raconteur's, have been told often enough to have become smooth and polished. -- S.H. (Through March 3 at the Marsh Berkeley; TheMarsh.org or 415-826-5750.)

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