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. — S.H. (Through July 23 at Altarena Playhouse; or 800-838-3006.)

Dreaming in a Firestorm — "Please let it mean something," Tim Barsky begins, "that one winter's night I walked from Hunters Point to Oakland." Right now Dreaming in the Firestorm is a monologue with music about how he couldn't get a ride home after a gig, and ended up wandering downtown San Francisco trying to cadge a ride home and thinking deep thoughts about fire. Loose and sprawling? Yes. Affecting and wise? Those too, if you can keep track of what's going on. There are places where Firestorm doesn't hang together yet, and the connection between the poetic and the prosaic feels forced. But there's a lot of good stuff in here. — L.D. (Through July 29 at 2232 MLK; or 510-644-2204.)

Ennio — Folding his inventive paper costumes so that he morphs from one celebrity caricature to another in the course of a single musical melody, Ennio Marchetto's lip-synching origami mime act clocks in at only seventy minutes with no intermission, but any more would be too much. Judy Garland's Dorothy turns into ET. Kylie Minogue becomes the Singing Nun. Frankenstein's monster turns into Frank and Nancy Sinatra. A one-man variety show on a bare stage that quickly becomes littered with cast-off paper, the Venetian master physical comic's "living cartoon" act is inventive, often hilarious, and utterly unique, but at the same time the manic onslaught of one funny tidbit after another after another can become exhausting. — S.H. (Through July 23 at the Berkeley Rep; or 510-647-2949.)

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 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. — 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. — 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. 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. — S.H. (Through August 5 at Contra Costa Civic Theatre; or 510-524-6654.)

The Inspector General — 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. Gogol was addressing corruption; CentralWorks is scratching at the national paranoia about terrorism. — 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. — L.D. (Through July 23 at the Aurora; or 510-843-4822.)

Restoration Comedy — Playwright Colley Cibber's 1696 farce Love's Last Shift, the story of a wayward husband who is brought to heel when his prissy wife learns to act the strumpet, ends with his sudden and dramatic reformation. That didn't satisfy another playwright, John Vanbrugh, who thought the climax silly and unbelievable. So in six weeks he wrote a more realistic sequel, The Relapse, wherein the husband backslides and the wife's virtue is tested by the arrival of a new suitor. Playwright Amy Freed (The Beard of Avon) got hold of both works, and saw the potential for something both incisive and deliriously sugar-frosted. In the hands of Sharon Ott and a delightful CalShakes cast, Restoration Comedy is a confection that questions devotion, fidelity, and how our self-perception keeps us from truly fulfilling relationships. — L.D. (Through July 30 at CalShakes; or 510-548-9666.)

Rough Crossing — This play 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, 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. 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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