Beyond the Fourth Wall 

Our critics review local theater productions.

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 11 at the Aurora; AuroraTheatre.org 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; ImpactTheatre.com or 510-464-4468.)

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; DLRCA.org 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; CentralWorks.org or 510-558-1381.)

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; BerkeleyRep.org or 510-647-2949)

The Secret Garden — Making a musical out of Frances Hodgson Burnett's 1911 children's classic isn't a bad idea on the face of it, but giving equal time to grownups who should be remote and forbidding is a terrible idea, especially when most of the adults in question are dead at the time. Rather than the manor's secrets being revealed gradually as Mary unearths them, from the very beginning all its ghosts are on display, quite literally, in this 1991 adaptation by Marsha Norman and Lucy Simon. The performances are hardly at fault so much as Norman's need to make everyone sympathetic, even when they're intolerable pills in the book, and Simon's music for the most part is cloying and far too busy. Andrew F. Holtz' lush and ambitious production sports an impressive rotating set by Peter Crompton, but the all-important garden isn't glimpsed until frustratingly late in the nearly-three-hour show, by which point it comes as an anticlimax. — S.H. (Through March 25 at the Willows Theatre; WillowsTheatre.org or 925-798-1300.)

To the Lighthouse — There's not a lot of dialogue or action in Virginia Woolf's 1927 novel, just the stream of everyone's consciousness. In this world premiere adaptation directed by Les Waters, playwright Adele Edling Shank tries out lots of ways to make this internal world external and theatrical. At first the story is told in dialogue interspersed with soliloquies, sometimes in first person, sometimes in third. The show's crowing achievement is a hilarious dinner scene, not incidentally the only one in which a single approach is used throughout — we never hear any of the dinner conversation, but rather each character's private thoughts. During one fifteen-minute scene depicting the passage of ten years, Paul Dresher's minimalist score takes over entirely, and then the final scene is opera, even though no one's been singing up to this point and it's not at all clear why they should start doing so now. It's simply an interesting device among many that never quite cohere into a whole. — S.H. (Through March 25 at Berkeley Rep; BerkeleyRep.org or 510-647-2949.)

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