Beyond the Fourth Wall 

Our critics review local theater productions.

As You Like It— There are enough garbled stagings of the public-domain Bard on the community circuit that sometimes it's a relief just to see one where it's always clear what's going on. Director David Koppel leans in the other direction in this debut outing by Arclight Repertory Theatre, exaggerating both the laughs and the drama so that a neglected nobleman becomes an oppressed slave in rags. But even if the players could stand to pick up the pace here or tone down the frolicking there, there's a lot of life in this forest of Arden (or Ardenne, as Koppel has set it in pre-Revolution France). James Hiser is a particularly lively Jaques, even if Jeremy Forbing's overwrought Orlando seems more melancholy than he, and Shannon Nicholson makes a nicely flirty heroine as Rosalind, even if her male disguise doesn't disguise much. A cheap-looking set is balanced out by some colorful costumes and a live quartet playing period-appropriate ditties. — S.H. (Through July 23 at Altarena Playhouse; or 800-838-3006.)

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. — 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.)

The Inspector General — One of the great Russian plays, Nikolai Gogol's The Inspector General describes a town gripped by panic when word comes that a mysterious functionary is coming to town. The mayor and his cronies have plenty to hide, so they fall over themselves to impress the visitor. What they don't know is that they've got the wrong man; Ivan Khlestakov is a lowly clerk who shows up at the right time to be fed, bribed, and offered the mayor's daughter's hand. Whether Ivan is really the inspector general is just one of the things that's different in CentralWorks' new version, which is set in a gated community near Mendocino. Ringed with razor wire, Safe Harbor is a community of 102 families who trust and look out for each other. Or do they? When the inspector general shows up, the real ties between neighbors — and spouses — are strained. The outline is similar to Gogol's, and the names are the same, but the intention is very different. Gogol was addressing corruption; CentralWorks is scratching at the national paranoia about terrorism. But it's funnier than it sounds, especially in scenes where the besieged couple swears an oath of secrecy, or when they try to implicate other families ("What about the couple in 29? She's French.") Marked by dry wit and perfect pacing, the CentralWorks Inspector General may bear only a family resemblance to Gogol's comedy, but it's as germane to its time as the original was to prerevolutionary Russia. — L.D. (Through July 30 at the Berkeley City Club; or 510-558-1381.)

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.)

We Are Not These Hands — Watching my sole episode of Friends, a French-dubbed airing in Tamatave, Madagascar, all I could think as Phoebe and her pals cavorted around their coffeeshop was "Is this what the rest of the world thinks American life is like?" A trip to China apparently led playwright Sheila Callaghan to ask the same question, and some other ones about "the psychology of want." The quirkily compelling answer is her new We Are Not These Hands, San Francisco company Crowded Fire's first production at the Ashby Stage. Hands centers on the relationship between two women and how it is affected by the presence (or absence) of a man. Callaghan is attacking much larger ideas about economics, politics, the discrepancy between global haves and have-nots, and the exoticization of the other. And once again she manages to get her jabs in while offering up weirdly engaging characters. Crowded Fire is a very visual company, and it shows in the design. Callaghan's nameless locale could be a country that was once a colony, which the colonizers then left without having built a self-sustaining infrastructure and everything collapsed. Between the silly talk and the rat brochettes and the truly bizarre seduction scene, profound questions surface, such as "Is the cost of the disruption worth the result?" Callaghan is getting more whimsical and more daring, and Crowded Fire is right there with her in this subversively smart world premiere. — L.D. (Through July 16 at the Ashby Stage;


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