Beyond the Fourth Wall 

Our critics review local theater productions.

The Fabulous Life of ... A Size Zero — The Choral Rehearsal Hall in the basement of the Cesar Chavez Student Center is about as far off Broadway as you can get, but that's where director Ben Rimalower chose to stage a bare-bones student workshop production of Marissa Kamin's campy body-image morality play to get the kinks out before its official world premiere Off-Broadway. Less than an hour long, Size Zero is about the destructive influence of celebrity culture on impressionable young girls, with little room for misinterpretation. Animated and often amusing, it bounces around from game-show parodies to monologues about diets and drugs, but at this point it never gets much beyond after-school-special melodrama. — S.H. (Through April 1 at UC Berkeley; UCChoral.berkeley.edu or 510-642-3880.)

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 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.)

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? — This Alameda community-theater production of Edward Albee's 1962 classic of marital cruelty just whets the appetite for depths in the text unplumbed in Richard Robert Bunker's intimate production. There's nothing cultured about Sue Trigg's coarseness as Martha, a university president's daughter married to a professor whom she detests as a professional failure, and she comes off more like a trucker's daughter. Robert Rossman gives George a soft-spoken eloquence and grudging tolerance, but when he loses his temper he loses his credibility. As a young couple only in the room only to give George and Martha a captive audience, Jamie Olsen comes to life only in reactions as Nick, but Lisa Price is quite funny as her Honey gets blotto and loosens up. — S.H. (Through April 1 at Altarena Playhouse; Altarena.org or 510-523-1553.)

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