Beyond the Fourth Wall 

Our critics review local theater productions.

Andromache — Think you've got it tough romantically? Consider young Orestes. He's in love with Ermione, who is pledged to Pyrrhus, who is in love with the enslaved Andromache. She, however, still loves Hector, which is problematic because he is dead, having been killed by Pyrrhus' pop Achilles. And Andromache is having a problem getting over the part where Achilles dragged her dead husband around Troy by the heels after besting him in combat. In CentralWorks' adaptation of Racine's Andromache, the title character will find a way to protect her young son, even if it means marrying a man she doesn't want so her son has a new dad, and then killing herself. CentralWorks has modernized the language and taken some liberties with the plot in this revival of its 1994 work, but the company is truer to Racine than Racine was to Euripides in this white-hot story of love and betrayal. This version fits neatly into the larger story of Greeks versus Trojans that has been playing out around the East Bay's theaters for several years. Racine made Andromache more about mortal frailty and less about divine manipulation than his Greek antecedents did, which gives this Andromache immediacy and vigor while still feeling larger than life. — L.D. (Through November 19 at the Berkeley City Club; CentralWorks.org or 510-558-1381.)

Company — There's no wife-swapping in Company, but Stephen Sondheim and George Furth's "concept musical" about what marriage means in the crazy mixed-up modern world is firmly rooted in 1970 — that is to say, seriously dated. It doesn't bother with a plot so much as cruise dysfunctional couples through their one swinging single friend (charmingly smarmy Kyle Johnson), and even Sondheim's music gets bogged down in schmaltzy Love Boat brass. Some of the singing is a little flat in Masquers' production, but Leah Tandberg-Warren slays with one of the few decent songs, "Getting Married Today." The community cast gets into the spirit of the thing gamely with appropriately tacky '70s leisure suits, décor, and combovers. — S.H. (Through December 16 at Masquers Playhouse; Masquers.org or 510-232-4031.)

Criminal Genius — You just can't get good help anymore. Tough, dyspeptic Shirley has hired the wrong pair of guys to do a job for her, and now things are going magnificently off the rails. Arson, kidnapping, murder, and the wanton destruction of innocent timepieces: Canadian playwright George Walker's Criminal Genius is funny and horrible, full of moments where you ask yourself, should I really be laughing because someone just got shot? Criminal Genius is also a subtle meditation on class war, and a not-so-subtle explosion of the victim mentality. Erin Gilley's directing is madcap and the writing wry, but this production's strength is its actors. Although the production values are high, TheatreFIRST's main investment appears to have been getting the strongest people it could afford. Although the ending is a little incoherent, this one should please audiences who don't mind a little violence and strong language in their dark comedy. — L.D. (Through November 19 at TheatreFIRST; TheatreFirst.com or 510-436-5085.)

Featuring Loretta & The End of Civilization — The UC Berkeley theater department's last installment of George F. Walker's six Suburban Motel plays kicks off with Featuring Loretta, a very funny, pulpy farce featuring porn, kidnapping, and a phone ringing off the hook. It lacks an ending and drags a bit in the heart-to-heart talks, but the cartoony chemistry of pregnant wannabe sexpot, hair-trigger wannabe boyfriend, smarmy wannabe impresario, and hapless Russian cleaning lady makes up for a lack of plot. Recycling some characters from earlier in the cycle, the hard-boiled serial killer drama The End of Civilization drags on quite a bit, and neither the flashback-ridden Pulp Fiction structure nor the drunk/crazy flailing of the student cast helps matters. Melpomene Katakalos' motel room set is impressively detailed. Each play runs about ninety minutes. — S.H. (Through November 19 at Zellerbach Playhouse; Theater.berkeley.edu or 510-642-992.)

Hedda Gabler — Protofeminist Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen turned from the heavy-handed moral plays of his time to write audience-shocking works known for their realistic, sympathetic treatment of both individual and social ills. In Hedda Gabler, Jurgen and his new wife Hedda have just returned from an extended honeymoon, and already Hedda is bored with married life — her bookish husband, a house she didn't really want, tiresomely kind in-laws. So she resorts to the only entertainment she can dream up, namely the cold-blooded manipulation of the people around her, who include some unexpected visitors from her and Jurgen's respective pasts. She's like a cat who plays with a mouse simply because she can, not out of any need to either feed or defend herself, and the results are deadly. In the current Actors Ensemble production, they're also stiff and strained. Here, all is misery. That's frustrating, because it's clear the director and cast are honestly connected to what the play is about — but not to their characters, or to a subtle and varied exploration of Ibsen's text. — L.D. (Through November 18 at the Live Oak Theatre; AEofBerkeley.org or 510-649-5999.)

Passing Strange — How far do you have to go to find yourself? That's the central question in the musician Stew's first full-length musical, Passing Strange, an often-brilliant, sometimes labored coming-of-age tale that extols the virtues of love, political theory, and a righteous bass line. Anchored by four musicians set around the stage in separate pits and Stew's own brimming goodwill, six actors tell the story of Youth, a kid from Los Angeles who goes in search of "the real" in churches, hash bars, and European squats. Careening from a Baptist church to Amsterdam and Berlin, this is a travelogue of both exterior and interior journeys. The cast is fantastic and agile. The production could stand tightening, especially in the second act where the rock-opera virus gets a vise grip on the songs, but there's still a lot of wonderful stuff to discover. — L.D. (Through December 3 at the Berkeley Rep; BerkeleyRep.org or 510-647-2949.)

Rude Boy — When hip-hop spoken-word artist Azeem breaks into rhyme in this solo show, it's usually the feverish stream-of-consciousness of a Jamaican-American mental-ward inmate haunted by voices, hardship, and guilt. His rants about the San Francisco chapter of the Rodney King riots, allegorical battles between rage and reason, and the "alphabet police" watching you through your TV are frenetic and totally compelling, interrupted only by a few blackout-separated vignettes late in the show that would be better incorporated into the monologue. The ending's a bit abrupt and where we are in the present isn't clear, but Azeem's wordplay and intensity makes it well worth staying there for an hour or so. — S.H. (Through November 25 at the Marsh Berkeley; TheMarsh.org or 800-838-3006.)

Tuesdays with Morrie — "Love is the only rational act," says the merry old sociology professor who claims to have turned Jerry Rubin and Angela Davis into radicals. He then goes on to show another favorite pupil that there are wonderful lessons to be learned from a slow death from Lou Gehrig's disease — lessons Detroit sportswriter Mitch Albom took firmly to heart in his best-selling book Tuesdays with Morrie. Death changed Mitch Albom's life, and in the stage adaptation of Tuesdays — essentially a Socratic dialogue with props and piano music — we see the beginning of that process. Gabriel Marin sells Mitch as driven and emotionally stunted; it's almost painful to watch his character resisting the love he's being offered. Meanwhile Morrie instructs us to delight in frivolity, love, music, and egg salad. Tuesdays could verge on treacly for some. Morrie proudly delighted in aphorisms, and there is a relentlessly positive vibe. But according to the post-show discussion after the performance I saw, it also gave great comfort to a group of hospice nurses in attendance, and inspired another audience member to talk to a dying friend he'd been avoiding. It's a gentle story sprinkled with a little mischief, well formed by CenterREP's artists. — L.D. (Through November 18 at the DLRCA; CenterRepertory.org or 925-943-7469.)

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