Beyond The Fourth Wall 

Our critics review local theater productions.

Death of a Salesman — "I feel kind of ... temporary ... about myself," says the salesman, and in that one line a whole world of disappointment and disillusion is laid bare. Of course, since this is an Arthur Miller play, there are close to three more hours of lines around it, but this was how they rolled, back in the '40s. It's an experience director Sue Trigg recreates nicely in Altarena Playhouse's current production. Wisely, she's chosen not to change or update it, other than some little things cut here and there to speed things up. Willy Loman (a lively, pugnacious Chris Chapman) has tried to be well-liked all his life. But inside he suspects that people are really mocking him. Plagued by loneliness, he compensates with false bonhomie, a mercurial temper, and shallow infidelities. He's also getting old, and tired; driving back and forth with his sample cases is wearing him out. We never learn what exactly is in those cases, perhaps because it's as inconsequential as he suspects his own life to be. It's solid work from a largely amateur cast. — L.D. Through April 9 at the Altarena Playhouse, Altarena.org or 510-523-1553.)

Gypsy — If a musical about burlesque queen Gypsy Rose Lee sounds racy, you've probably been asleep for the past 47 years. Anyone who's seen the countless high-school productions of this early Sondheim musical knows that nightmare stage mom Rose is the star of the show — or ought to be, anyway. Any role originated by Ethel Merman requires some serious pipes, and Donna J. Turner, brassy enough when speaking, could stand to pump up the volume as Rose in this Town Hall production by artistic director Kevin T. Morales that's too reminiscent of those school stagings. The intentionally shrill kiddie act is often hilarious (kudos to 8th-grader Erika Leigh Henningsen as child star wannabe Baby June), and Jennifer Graham's growth from shrinking violet Louse to strutting Gypsy is a treat. But the energy flags between songs, and there are too many madcap moments in which no one on or off stage seems to know what's going on. — S.H. (Through April 22 at Town Hall Theatre; 925-283-1557 or THTC.org)

Live from Town Hall — This series of live radio shows is performed from actual golden-age radio scripts of classic dramas and comedy series every other Monday in April and June (but not May). In a lively, intimate environment where the cast chats with the audience between tapings for eventual broadcast on a station yet to be determined, the stage becomes littered with discarded pages as actors rise from their chairs to read their lines into a row of microphones. Another actor at the sound effects table creates footsteps, slamming doors, clinking glasses and comic crashes. April 10 features episodes of the bickering Bickersons and the Marx Brothers' Flywheel, Shyster & Flywheel, plus a Dorothy Parker monologue. — S.H. (Through June 19 at Town Hall Theatre; 925-283-1557 or THTC.org)

Our Lady of 121st Street — Brooklyn's Sister Rose is dead, but it'll be hard to bury her — someone has absconded with her body. So all the people who have come to pay their respects — students, neighbors, relatives, and co-workers — have to wait to see what happens. They're an impatient bunch; tempers flare, old wounds are reopened, and one woman slaps another just for looking like a childhood enemy. It's keenly funny and human. Every now and again a show hits San Francisco that's worth the expedition. Our Lady of 121st Street is just such a show, and it's a damn shame, with its irreverence and genuinely graceful multiculti vibe, that we didn't get it first. — L.D. (Through April 8 at the SF Playhouse; SFPlayhouse.org or 415-677-9596.)

The Romantic Age Winnie the Pooh creator A.A. Milne's obscure 1920 play is a pleasant bit of fluff in which everyone's terribly likable. Melisande is a rhapsodic dreamer who takes her knight in shining armor fantasies too literally, and her hypochondriac mother (an amusingly dotty Terry Guillory) just wants to see her comfortably and sensibly wed. Add to that a prosaic suitor, the practical cousin who constantly comments that she's not as romantically minded, a jovial dad, a wise drifter who speaks in aphorisms, and the inevitable romantic stranger, and this simple fable plays out almost mathematically. — S.H. (Through April 15 at San Leandro Museum Auditorium; SanLeandroPlayers.org or 510-895-2573.)

Zorro in Hell — All the Culture Clash comedy troupe has been missing is sword fights and men in bear suits. Now we get that too in the world premiere of Zorro in Hell at the Berkeley Rep, a buoyant full-length play that exhorts us to "think globally and act Zorrolly." A nameless writer (Richard Montoya) has retired to a mysterious inn to knock off a play about Zorro. He's not serious about it — he has to justify a grant he won. However the proprietor has very strong feelings on the matter, feelings she's happy to express with a shotgun. Namely, she disagrees with the writer on the question of Zorro's reality. Before he can say "Hotel California," the writer finds that he's effectively trapped until he comes around to her point of view. The result is a literate slapstick, raunchy and hectic. This is a real play, with scenes and story arc and everything. Yet the high-tech set and regional-theater ticket prices haven't dulled the CC blade. The collective is still unabashedly political, mercilessly and merrily skewering anything that gets too close. — L.D. (Through April 16 at the Berkeley Rep; BerkeleyRep.org or 510-657-2949.)

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