Beyond the Fourth Wall 

Our critics review local theater productions.

Bright Ideas -- Macbeth meets the soccer mom set in a clash of juice-boxes in the Shotgun Players' Bright Ideas, which probes just how far parents will go to ensure their children's happiness. Lie? Cheat? Maim? Kill? Don't laugh, it's not that much of a stretch. Playwright Eric Coble nimbly smushes together Shakespeare's tale of a couple twisted beyond redemption and the hunt for the perfect preschool like the halves of a PB&J on organic whole-wheat bread. Joshua and Genevra Bradley have been told that the person their son Mac is on his fourth birthday is the person he will be as an adult. Which means, obviously, that he must be in the perfect preschool, coached past any real or imagined insufficiency, and videotaped every second of his young life. The Macbeth references are legion. There's talk of never being able to wash out a spot (in Shakespeare, it's blood; here it's pesto), a sleepwalking murderer, children named "Mac" and "Duncan," even a ghost at the banquet. Besides catching the Bardic references, it's fascinating watching as Genevra and Joshua's journeys part and intersect and part again. Nasty fun, this story has a certain ring of truth. Parents who have tried to wrestle their kids into the most exclusive schools will get it; people without kids might decide to stay that way. — L.D. (Through April 23 at the Ashby Playhouse; ShotgunPlayers.org or 510-841-6500.)

Desire Under the Elms -- While there's plenty of desire simmering under the trees that surround the Cabot farm, nothing comes without a price, and Eugene O'Neill is going to make sure you know it. The play some call "the first real American tragedy" is heavy with Biblical and classical references, from the Old Testament names of the characters (Ephraim, Simeon, Peter) to the punishment dealt the murderous. Written quickly in 1924, allegedly straight from a dream, Desire Under the Elms pretty much covers the "thou shalt not covets" and throws some of the deadly sins into the bargain. At the center of the action is the farm, which might belong to young Eben through his late mother, or Eben and his half-brothers, or Eben's father Ephraim. Depends on whom you talk to. Things get more complicated when Ephraim remarries, because young Abbie is determined to become a landed woman herself, even if it means laying with her much-older husband, whom she clearly doesn't like. It's a complex play, but not a subtle one; the ending is as predictable as anything that sprang from Aeschylus' stylus. Fortunately, director Lee Sankowich can be a subtle guy, and his actors resist the urge to overplay their parts. That makes for an intense night at CenterREP, marked by passion and violence in near-equal measure. — L.D. (Through April 22 at the Dean Lesher Center for the Arts; DLRCA.org or 925-943-7469.)

Disney's Beauty and the Beast— Now that Disney has opened the floodgates, productions of this Broadway musical are cropping up in high schools across the country. But Contra Costa Musical Theatre does it up right for its East Bay premiere, with impressive rotating sets, colorful costumes, and big production numbers with minimal choreography. Alan Menken and Howard Ashman's memorable songs from the animated movie are supplemented with less memorable filler by Menken and Tim Rice that seem unaware that they're filler — the Beast's ho-hum lament ends the first act instead of the dancing-flatware show-stopper "Be Our Guest." Megan Gallup is a radiant Belle, and Nephi Speer sings well as the Beast, though his crouching and moaning are more geriatric than fearsome. But the show lights up considerably whenever the enchanted knickknacks or preening lout Gaston (Joshua Hollister) are onstage. — S.H. (Through May 13 at the Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts; DLRCA.org or 925-943-7469.)

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 Louise 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. — S.H. (Through June 19 at Town Hall Theatre; 925-283-1557 or thtc.org)

Relative Values — If the waning of the British aristocracy is a topic you're keen on, this minor work by community-theater staple Noël Coward may be your cup of tea. Coward's wry patter ought to be snappier in this community production staged by Robert Taylor (doing double duty as loquacious butler Crestwell), if not for drollery's sake then because this trifle oughtn't be nearly three hours long. There are some funny one-liners amid the class-anxious nonsense about a lord marrying a Hollywood starlet, but some of them fly under the radar in the low-key, vaguely-British-accented performances. Loralee Windsor gains steam as the elder countess when she stops being at sea and starts sweetly scheming, and Marilyn Hughes likewise livens up when she's put in an impossible (and outrageously coincidental) situation as maid Moxie. — S.H. (Through May 6 at Masquers Playhouse; Masquers.org or 510-232-4031.)

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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