Beyond the Fourth Wall 

Our critics review local theater productions.

I Have Loved Strangers— A play blending '60s radicals the Weather Underground with the Book of Jeremiah sounds pretty dense, and there's certainly a lot to sink your teeth into in this West Coast premiere from Anne Washburn, a New York-based Berkeley native whose work hasn't been seen before in the Bay Area. It's also the East Bay debut of Berkeley-based Just Theatre, which started its first season in October, and Strangers is enough to make you hungry for more. It's not necessary to be a biblical scholar or historian of the left in order to appreciate the play, which is more about enjoying the ride than necessarily following the plot, and co-artistic director Jonathan Spector's sharp, brisk production ensures that it's utterly engrossing. The young cast of nine deftly navigates both the tiny space and a script that calls for sharp turns from hilarious to haunting and from highly stylized movements to breezy naturalism. (Through May 26 at the Berkeley City Club; JustTheatre.org or 510-421-1458.)

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. (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. (Through May 26 at La Val's Subterranean; ImpactTheatre.com or 510-464-4468.)

Serjeant Musgrave's Dance — A thick layer of Brechtian alienation separates the audience from the action in Clive Chafer's TheatreFIRST production of John Arden's antiwar 1959 play, and the characters' speaking in rhyme and bursting into ballads often make things hard to follow. The townsfolk are an entertaining lot, headed up by Emily Jordan as the wild-eyed barmaid Annie and Lindsey Murray as the world-weary pub owner, as are Chris Ayles' haunted Black Jack Musgrave and his three privates: menacing Hurst (Noah James Butler), grim ex-mercenary Attercliffe (Garth Petal), and sad-eyed, boyish Sparky (Rowan Brooks). The trouble in the play is that the soldiers are so far gone that their scheme of introducing the town to the horror of war backfires. The trouble with the play is similar: It makes its point that war is bad, but in such a general way that it's hard to connect it to real things happening right now. (Through May 27 at Old Oakland Theatre; TheatreFirst.com or 510-436-5085.)

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