Beyond the Fourth Wall 

Our critics review local theater productions.

Blue Door - In Tanya Barfield's gripping new play, Lewis (David Fonteno), a fiftysomething African-American Ivy League math professor newly abandoned by his white wife, goes through a sleepless night in which he's visited by the spirits of several generations of the men in his family: his slave-born great-grandfather Simon; his grandfather Jesse, who grew up under Jim Crow; and his militant brother Rex, all played by Teagle F. Bougere. The focus is quite properly on the performances in film actor turned director Delroy Lindo's production, but a few supernatural visual elements feel ill-fitting, such as Emilio Sosa's curiously fantastical set with a starry background and an impossibly high bookshelf filled with illuminated texts. Though the interaction between the two has some pacing problems, Fonteno wrings a surprising amount of humor out of his dark night of the soul, and Bougere brightly embodies sharp and fast-talking Simon, similarly sly and charming Jesse, and the confrontational but unexpectedly wry Rex. (Through May 20 at the Berkeley Rep; BerkeleyRep.org or 510-647-2949.)

Lysistrata - This contemporary adaptation of Aristophanes' ancient Greek comedy about an antiwar sex strike runs less than an hour, but Actors Ensemble of Berkeley's production often feels like an eternity. There are some clever touches in Ellen McLaughlin's script, but both the jokes and the political points are buried in Noona Nolan's staging with overdone wackiness, such as Melissa Craven and Emily Broderick's gratuitous pratfalls as the go-go dancing chorus. Tina Arriola brings commanding confidence to Athenian ringleader Lysistrata, and Eden Nelson has a nice balance of hunger and resolve as valiantly cockteasing wife Myrrhine, but all the mugging and muddled slapstick finally manages the unthinkable: it makes one yearn for prop comedy. The show livens up considerably when the twisted balloon phalluses and accompanying penis jokes come in, but when fake dicks raise the bar it's not a good sign. (Through May 12 at Live Oak Theatre; AEofBerkeley.org or 510-843-5580.)

Macbeth - The weird sisters are nearly omnipresent in Jeremy Cole's staging, assuming many small roles and nudging events along at every turn. The main innovation in this Subterranean Shakespeare production is that scenes overlap with each other, which distracts from the drama and breaks up Shakespeare's poetic flow. The split-screen aesthetic is only part of what makes the production feel rushed. The principals are well spoken, but much of the staging is stiff. One side effect of so much going on at once is that no one thing is terribly interesting. Paul Jennings makes an upright, businesslike Macbeth, but remains impassive and expressionless until he becomes king and starts scheming to wipe out all potential opposition. Macbeth is already the shortest of Shakespeare's tragedies, but this two-hour production seems in an awful big hurry to rub out its hit list. - S.H. (Through May 26 at Berkeley Art Center; MySpace.com/subshakes or 510-276-3871.)

Measure for Measure - While the performances are often broad and stronger on high jinks than high stakes, Impact Theatre artistic director Melissa Hillman's thoroughly modern production of one of Shakespeare's more problematic comedies (the one about the nun being pressured to put out to save her brother's life) keeps the comedy fast-paced without ever becoming confusing. Marissa Keltie does an excellent shellshocked expression as Isabella, who has a lot to be distressed about. Ted Barker captures a CEO's casual command as Duke Vincentio, although he's not always audible. Cole Alexander Smith has a cadet's military bearing as autocratic Angelo, but the emphasis he puts on sentences often runs contrary to their sense. Jeremy Forbing is over the top as the incorrigible scalawag Lucio, and Stacz Sadowski threatens to steal the show in the bit part of the drunkard Barnardine. - S.H. (Through May 26 at La Val's Subterranean; ImpactTheatre.com or 510-464-4468.)

Private Jokes, Public Places - Aurora's regional premiere of Canadian playwright Oren Safdie's academic satire manages to be funny even when you have no idea what anyone's talking about. As architects reviewing students' thesis projects, Charles Dean and Robert Parsons spew out such a pretentious stream of art-crit cant that the jargon becomes gibberish. As the frustrated and beset student defending her thesis, Safdie's wife M.J. Kang seems to champion common sense, but as her agitation increases her voice loses all nuance and her words scarcely register. Though insiders may appreciate additional levels, nonarchitects can rely on Barbara Damashek's fast-paced production and hilarious performances to carry the comedy. More like an extended satirical sketch than a play, the R-rated ending is both predictable and gratuitous, a closing jolt substituting for resolution because there's nothing much to resolve. Parodies of the modernist and postmodernist movements, the irreconcilable aesthetic differences are ultimately private jokes that lose something when aired in public places. (Through May 13 at the Aurora Theatre; AuroraTheatre.org or 510-843-4822.)

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