Beyond the Fourth Wall 

Our critic reviews local theater productions.

Anna Bella Eema — Perched on three chairs and making animal sounds and noises with various objects, Julie Kurtz, Danielle Levin, and Cassie Beck are spellbinding. Irene (Beck), who never leaves her mobile home, tells about the day her daughter Anna Bella (Levin) made a girl named Anna Bella Eema (Kurtz) out of mud. The performances are spellbinding and inextricably interlaced, the others singing or growling along as one narrates. Lisa D'Amour's language is exquisite — poetic and funny, mythic and down-to-earth at the same time. As drenched as the play is in fairy-tale tropes, its abandoned trailer-park setting makes the flights of fancy seem necessary and completely real. This West Coast premiere is also a fitting farewell to Crowded Fire founder Rebecca Novick, who in ten years as artistic director has been committed to presenting challenging new work. Her staging of Anna Bella Eema demonstrates how rewarding those challenges can be. (Through July 1 at Traveling Jewish Theatre and July 5-15 at the Ashby Stage; CrowdedFire.org or 415-439-2456.)

The Death of Ayn Rand and A Bed of My Own— Alameda's Virago Theatre Company presents two world-premiere shorts by two local actor-playwrights, staged by Robert and Laura Lundy-Paine respectively. Any fear that John Byrd's The Death of Ayn Rand will be some mawkish tribute to the objectivist philosopher's last days is dissipated when a nurse in go-go boots (Michaela Greeley) and two clowns (Angela Dant and Jeremy Vik) invade to sing, juggle, brawl, and shatter the fourth wall with unabashed, if sometimes bittersweet, wackiness. At first Robert Hamm's A Bed of My Own seems similarly quirky, as a stammering milquetoast (Stephen Pawley) is greeted by his scowling ex (Greeley) slamming down a dinner plate dominated by an overflowing ashtray, while her current bullying beau (Paul Santiago) seems mysteriously incapable of leaving the bed. A promising enough setup for farce, but it soon becomes overboiled noir packed with hackneyed Spillane dialogue and plenty of screaming, baby talk, and carrying on. (Through July 7 at Rhythmix Cultural Works; ViragoTheatre.org or 510-865-6237.)

Great Men of Genius— Mike Daisey returns with four biographical monologues, each a ninety-minute standalone evening, with Sunday marathons of all four. The Bertolt Brecht piece is less about the playwright than Daisey's own fascination with Brecht's harem of female collaborators and anecdotes about Daisey offending everyone for free speech's sake as a bullheaded college student. P.T. Barnum inspires a hilarious and wide-ranging rumination on showmanship and humbuggery that moves deftly from the impresario and his sideshow attractions to rhapsodizing about The Wrath of Khan and pooh-poohing Puppetry of the Penis. Nikola Tesla manages to be even more fascinating, seamlessly interweaving the eccentric electrical pioneer's AC/DC feud with Edison and development of a death ray with Daisey's childhood obsession with nuclear winter. The L. Ron Hubbard monologue is a kind of exposé roadshow about the Scientology founder, including stories about acquaintances who've been badgered and fleeced by Scientologists. Daisey will also workshop a new monologue on July 3, Tongues Will Wag. (Through July 1 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre; BerkeleyRep.org or 510-647-2949.)

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