Beyond The Fourth Wall 

Our critics review local theater productions.

The Fantasticks — With community theater, it's likely that much of the audience already has seen a given play: Artistic directors often choose their seasons with an eye to familiarity. But with The Fantasticks, a technically simple off-Broadway musical about two lovers, two fathers, a bandit, and a wall, it's also likely that audience members have acted in it. Based on Edmond Rostand's Les Romanesques ("The Romancers"), about two fathers who connive to match their children by pretending a feud and hiring a bandit to create a little drama, this Tom Jones/Harvey Schmidt version has singing, swordfighting, and broad physical humor. But where Rostand (who also wrote Cyrano de Bergerac) was trying to spread fantasy, Jones and Schmidt decided to take their story in a very different direction — as a gentle reminder that in the real world, you have to make less-heroic sacrifices for love, and there are no fairy-tale endings. Except maybe for a little show that outlasted its critics. Its lively charm has made it one of the most-performed high school and community theater musicals. In other words, if you're staging this one, you'd better get it right, because the audience will be singing along. And the Masquers do get it right, if conservatively, with three musicians behind a scrim behind the actors and the choice to use the original script. Alex Shafer and Keith Jefferds are fun as the the scheming dads in plaids, although Jefferds as Hucklebee, Matt's father, appears to have difficulty moving his head and neck independently of his shoulders, creating a sort of monolithic torso that gets distracting. He has the smile of a cheerful lesser demon, though, which serves well as he sings about how you have to manipulate your children. — L.D. (Through July 22 at the Masquers Playhouse; or 510-232-4031.)

Faulty Intelligence — Roy Zimmerman's evening of satirical songs might be more at home in a nightclub or campus quad than a theater, and mocking the right wing is obviously preaching to the choir in Berkeley, but Zimmerman does so with such charm and devilish wit that none of those caveats matter much. He takes on the PATRIOT Act, intelligent design, anti-gay-marriage hysteria, the War on Terror, English-only reactionaries, Dick Cheney, and Ann Coulter with his acoustic guitar, brief segueing patter, clever rhymes, and pliant meter. Particularly hilarious are an Elvis-like love song to the National Security Agency ("because you really listen"), a portrayal of "Jerry Falwell's God" as a tedious party-crasher, and a sultry falsetto ode to abstinence. — S.H. (Through July 27 at the Marsh Berkeley; or 415-826-5750.)

Footloose -- Dean Pitchford and Walter Bobbie's stage adaptation of Pitchford's 1984 screenplay relies heavily on familiarity with the Kevin Bacon flick, and incorporates almost the entire movie soundtrack plus new Broadway-style book numbers by Pitchford and "Let's Hear It for the Boy" composer Tom Snow. But Contra Costa Civic Theatre does it proud with a multilevel set that whets the appetite for the iconic dance moment that never arrives. For a musical about dancing, director Amy Nielson's minimal choreography reminds us that it's about people who haven't danced for a long time. Strong singers overlap only slightly with the lead roles: Matt Davis tears it up as rebel Ren, even if he's too amiable to be a threat to small-town society, but Alex Alvarez' one Sammy Hagar song is a knockout as the bad-boy boyfriend whose plot thread is left dangling. -- S.H. (Through August 5 at Contra Costa Civic Theatre; or 510-524-6654.)

Permanent Collection — Based on the story of a real collector who created a singular museum that eventually suffered near-bankruptcy and legal challenges as a result of his quirky will, Permanent Collection does what few plays — indeed, few people — dare to do. It raises several critical questions not only about race relations in America, but about how we even begin to talk about them. The real-life doctor and inventor Albert Barnes was the model for the play's Albert Morris, who appears as a sort of ghost. Alive, Morris loved art and hated the art establishment, so when he built a museum to house his collection of Impressionist and traditional African pieces, he put all sorts of limitations on who could visit, how things could be displayed, and what would happen to the place after he died. These limitations become critically important fifty-odd years after the last gallery is arranged according to Morris' idea of which pieces should be viewed with which others. There are some great African pieces in storage that Sterling would like to display, but it means challenging the ideas of Morris — and the director of education Morris hired just before his death, rumpled twenty-year museum veteran Paul. What may have passed for progressiveness in Morris' day (putting out one African mask for every ten paintings of naked white women) won't cut it now. There's still difficult dialogue ahead, and work like Gibbons' fearless Collection makes that clear. — L.D. (Through July 23 at the Aurora; or 510-843-4822.)

Rough Crossing -- A last-minute replacement for the Town Hall season closer Guys & Dolls, Rough Crossing is a lightweight crowd-pleaser about a playwright's attempt to convince his lovesick songwriter that he's not being cuckolded by the fickle leading lady so that the show can go on. Tom Stoppard took a fairly typical Ferenc Molnar thespian bedroom farce, Play at the Castle (also adapted by P.G. Wodehouse as The Play's the Thing), out of the castle and set it on a ship, and director Kevin T. Morales in turn added a few Gershwin and Porter tunes so that there's something for the musical crowd. Though the characters are theater people, they wear their reactions on their sleeves, and there's no layer of putting on a performance for each other. The cleverness in Stoppard's text only partly comes across here, but the wackiness on the surface is amusing enough to suffice. -- S.H. (Through July 23 at Town Hall Theatre; or 925-283-1557.)

The Tempest — Juliàn López-Morillas makes an eloquently melancholy Prospero, exiled duke turned sorcerer, in the San Francisco Shakespeare Festival's free summer production of the bard's swansong. But despite a faceless, omnipresent Blue Man Group of spirits that blends into the walls of Richard Ortenblad's striking text-covered set, this is an oddly static Tempest, the castaways either milling around or running randomly willy-nilly to indicate comedy. Though the decision to have Prospero onstage for the whole play aptly indicates his omniscience, it also accentuates the impression of having nothing better to do. Director Kenneth Kelleher has the cast doing double duty to sometimes confusing and troubling effect, as when Prospero soothes Miranda (a high-strung Julia Motyka) to sleep and turns her into his fairy servant Ariel. It's as though he has hypnotized and enslaved his own daughter. — S.H. (Through September 24 in area parks; or 415-558-0888.)


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