Beyond the Fourth Wall 

Our critics review local theater productions.

All the Great Books (abridged)— The Reduced Shakespeare Company, which started at the Renaissance Faire in Novato and went on to a nine-year run in London's West End, returns to the Bay Area with two of its madcap shows in rotating repertory as part of Center REP's season. Stronger overall than The Complete History of America, below, this fast-paced mashup of Western lit features three guys tearing through a barrage of jokes both corny and inspired, audience participation, fourth-wall busting, and a hilarious recap of the Homeric epics in iambic heptameter. This is an introductory course: No prerequisites except a sense of humor. — S.H. (Through March 3 at the Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts; or 925-943-7469.)

The Birthday Party — Contemporary Western theater is informed by discomfort. Architects have formed a near-biblical series of begats, with one playwright influencing the next. Martin McDonagh was influenced by Sam Shepard and David Mamet; McDonagh's The Pillowman was just extended at the Berkeley Rep and the Shotgun Players have Mamet's The Cryptogram coming up in May. Mamet was in turn influenced by Harold Pinter, whose The Birthday Party is now up at the Aurora. And there probably wouldn't have been Pinter had there not first been Beckett, who was just given a lovely homage in the Rep's all wear bowlers. The point being that all of these men, when their work first surfaced, pissed people off. Audiences yelled at the stage or walked out, critics wrote scathing reviews, shows closed prematurely (the first run of The Birthday Party, in 1958, lasted a miserable four days.) Yet in each case something about the work was vital and resonant enough that eventually it found an audience; people discovered that these playwrights were speaking to their fears, whether of violence, obsolescence, social disapproval, or political oppression. The Tom Ross-directed production at the Aurora shimmers with menace that all the cabbage-rose wallpaper and porcelain kitties of Richard Olmstead's set design can't conceal. The play opens with Meg serving breakfast to her husband and ends just before lunch the next day. In the interim, there's an interrogation, a nightmarish party, some necking, wanton destruction of a musical instrument, and a mysterious "Organization" that might or might not be extralegal, or even real. Fifty years ago, people couldn't hack The Birthday Party. Now its ambiguity and the questions it raises are a major part of its charm, especially in this well-tuned version. — L.D. (Through March 4 at the Aurora; or 510-843-4822.)

Cartoon— Steven Yockey's musical comedy about cartoon violence suits Berkeley's Impact Theatre perfectly — it's fast-paced, funny, and drenched in pop culture. Though it loses some steam at the end, there's food for thought, and some surprisingly touching moments amid the pratfalls and bloodshed of this Saturday-morning insurgency against a ruthless dictatorship of repeated shticks and theme tunes. An animated cast creates a credible toontown in Mark Routhier's bare-bones production, particularly Chris Yule as the soulful, world-weary marionette Winston Puppet and Marissa Keltie as the tempestuous and nonverbal Damsel. If you see only one play about cartoon characters killing each other this year, make it this one. — S.H. (Through March 10 at La Val's Subterranean; or 510-464-4468.)

The Complete History of America (abridged)— This haphazard romp through US history doesn't hold together as well All the Great Books, the Reduced Shakespeare Company's other offering alternating with it in Center REP's season. The long, strange, soft-boiled-detective trip through the last half of the 20th century reads like Guy Noir lite, and the politics get a little heavy-handed even for the bluest area of a blue state, but there's some drop-dead hilarious stuff along the way, especially (of all things) the Lincoln assassination, silent-movie style. Also contains a stump-the-performers pop quiz and a de facto splash zone. A ticket stub for one RSC show gets you $5 off the other. — S.H. (Through March 3 at the Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts; or 925-943-7469.)

Guys and Dolls— Frank Loesser's musical romantic comedy of low-life gamblers and Salvation Army missionaries is always a crowd-pleaser, and Contra Costa Musical Theatre gives it a robust full-scale staging under the direction of Jennifer Denison Perry, with wildly colorful costumes by Melissa Paterson and brightly busy Broadway backdrops by Kelly Tighe. Terry D'Emidio's hilarious and nuanced Adelaide gives the whole production a touch of blue-collar class, and Noel Anthony's voice is lovely, but his Sky Masterson comes off as achingly sincere from the outset, at odds with his hard-boiled dialogue, and has nowhere to go from there. Joel Roster is a solid and funny Nathan Detroit, and Meghann May's coloratura warbling and wholesome charm are just right for Sgt. Sarah Brown. — S.H. (Through March 17 at the Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts; or 925-943-7469.)

Lola Montez— In this age of Girls Gone Foolish, a flash of stocking isn't shocking, but it certainly was in 1840s Munich. And while writer-director Gary Graves and his CentralWorks collaborators chose to keep Lola's clothes on, her effect on King Ludwig I of Bavaria is no less electric for it. Ludwig is in the third decade of a bloodless marriage, and pauses from his modernization projects to compose regrettable poetry about his wintry heart. As he and Ms. Montez gaze into each other's eyes, Ludwig's wife Therese tries to hold things together in the real world. Ludwig's philandering is nothing new, but he used to protect her dignity. Now he's being beastly, revolution is afoot, and Therese has the kingdom to think about. As interior minister Karl Reichart, whom the queen implores to intervene, Sean Williford actually gets to stand up straight. (Here, his almost painful rigidity contrasts with the king's increasing flamboyance. Louis Parnell is rich as Ludwig, with a chewy voice and subtly haunted face who goes from cleverly businesslike to completely checked-out. Jan Zvaifler's accent verges on overkill, but that's the point. Like Mata Hari, Lola was a woman's fabrication — there should be something extreme about the character, and Zvaifler gets that without making her a cartoon. It's even possible that her love for Ludwig is real, if not exactly the kind he's hoping for. Both Zvaifler and Graves keep us guessing. In our celebrity-mad time, this story could be painted in broad strokes: hysterical heroines and men made stupid by lust. But the writing and ensemble take the time to go deeper. Even though we know this can't end well — the real Lola Montez died alone and penniless — such an exquisitely human story, with its deceptions and revelations, is as compelling as a well-executed striptease. — L.D. (Presented by CentralWorks at the Berkeley City Club through March 25; or 510-558-1381.)

Nathan the Wise — Set in 1192, during the Third Crusade, Gotthold Lessing's Nathan the Wise chronicles a brief moment of cooperation between three major world religions. The noble Sultan Saladin controls Jerusalem, but he's having a cashflow problem that the wealthy Jewish merchant Nathan might be able to help him fix. Nathan has just returned from a business trip to find that his daughter Rachel was rescued from a house fire by a mysterious young Templar whom Saladin has pardoned. The play's characters — Muslim, Jew, and Christian — must find common ground, which they do through a surprising series of revelations both philosophical and romantic, intellectual and lightly comic. Nathan the Wise is billed as a play for our time, and from the faith angle that's certainly true. But this nicely streamlined Edward Kemp translation — William Taylor's is clunky and high-falutin', full of "twixts" and the like — retains the texture of its own time, especially in the revelations of who is related to whom, which are downright Shakespearean in their complexity. On opening night the actors were having difficulty expressing these tricky relationships, but that should ease with the run. — L.D. (Through March 4 at the Old Oakland Theatre and at TJT in SF March 9-11; or 510-436-5085.)

The Pillowman — Martin McDonagh, an English-born Irishman influenced by Mamet and the Clash alike, has made his name as a dramatist for language as gory as it is wickedly funny. The story of Katurian, who is interrogated by the police because a series of grisly local murders look a lot like his twisted little tales, is a fable about big issues. Even though the material will be too much for anyone who can't stand hearing about bad things happening to children (or evil parents, but at least no animals get it this time), director Les Waters proves once again that he can balance horror and humor. — L.D. (At the Berkeley Rep through March 11; or 510-647-2949)

Shopping for God — Erica Lann-Clark's one-woman show covers a lot of territory, from her narrow escape from the Holocaust fleeing Vienna as a small child to youthful rebellion from her atheist Jewish parents by flirting with every spiritual system from Catholicism to Castaneda. Directed by David Ford, the meandering and often humorous show feels as if it still has yet to find its structure, and Lann-Clark's broad and boisterous delivery is sometimes disproportionate to the material — but in an endearing way, like a larger-than-life relative. A phone-call gimmick and some of the direct address to God the mother (not Goddess, because she finds the suffix demeaning) doesn't really work, but there's some priceless material here about spiritual quests, therapy, catharsis, and reconciliation that should resonate with just about anyone. — S.H. (Through March 3 at the Marsh Berkeley; or 800-838-3006.)

Sweeney Todd — For the most part, the singing is much stronger than the acting in this community-theater production of Stephen Sondheim's most macabre musical, but that's far preferable to the reverse, given how superb the music is in this bloody tale of a barber's clients being turned into meat pies, and how much information is conveyed while people are singing five different things at once. The large cast navigates admirably through the tricky material, though some songs are cut for length (happily not for content — there's some racy stuff in here). Daren A.C. Carollo's inventive staging is delightfully creepy, with the chorus closing in from all sides of the stripped-down set. — S.H. (Through March 3 at Contra Costa Civic Theatre; or 510-524-9132.)


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