Capsule Reviews 

Our critics weigh in on local theater

Anna Christie -- The story of Anna Christie, who gets a new start when she goes to visit her seafaring father and meets the love of her life in the process, immediately captured the American imagination in 1922, the year it was first produced. Two film versions were released, and Anna Christie netted O'Neill his second of four Pulitzers. O'Neill envisioned Anna as a sort of Valkyrie, large and well-turned of limb, but CenterREP director Lee Sankowich's choice of the diminutive Delia MacDougall makes Anna seem all the braver, surrounded as she is by hulking longshoremen. MacDougall is part of a powerhouse cast that includes Ken Ruta, Aldo Billingslea, and Pat Parker as Chris Christopherson's salty girlfriend Marthy. Props to Ruta, the Bay Area's ur-Falstaff, for imbuing Chris with a certain sad dignity. Ruta's acting of Chris as hunched and hesitant creates a powerful dynamic with Aldo Billingslea's large, virile Mat Burke. Chris hates the sea but can't stay away from it; as a coal barge captain he is neither fish nor fowl, a true sailor or a true landsman. Anna Christie is a sensory feast, from Eric Sinkkonen's hyperreal barroom and barge to Kurt Landisman's excellent lighting design (especially the trick of making the beginning and end of each act look like sepiatone photographs). It's an illusion given more weight by Norman Kern's sounds and Cassandra's Carpenter's costumes. This is a production that virtually reeks of the sea, and neatly frames the small, powerful woman at its center. (Through April 24 at the Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts; 925-943-SHOW or DLRCA.org)

Children of Eden -- Many of the Bible's big dudes are getting plenty of exposure this Easter season; at least at the Willows, it's with a story that doesn't threaten to make you lose your lunch. In an incredibly warm and fuzzy production that recasts the Bible as the story of a family with some boundary issues, the new musical Children of Eden fills the stage with singing, dancing, and a great many children dressed as lovable animals. Very loosely based on the first nine and a half chapters of Genesis, Children of Eden presents Adam and Eve as equal siblings waking up to each other's attractiveness after a big day of animal-naming, Cain killing Abel by accident, and the story of Noah spiced up with a little "pox upon your two houses" action when Noah's son falls for a girl from the wrong side of the tracks. But sticklers for accuracy should remember that Genesis was written by at least four different people over a period of 550-odd years; you expect some inconsistency. The Willows does a great job realizing the musical. The beautifully multicultural cast sing and move well, the costumes are great, and the sets are simple and effective. The design of the snake (a very large puppet manipulated by half a dozen people) is especially nice. Some of the musical numbers (like the calypso-flavored one that covers the begats) are both funny and catchy, and the cast seems to be having a great time performing them. All told, if you're into Bible stories, this is much more fun than the Gibson flick currently bleeding its way around the country. If you're not, it might be a little long at three hours. (Through April 18 at the Willows; 925-798-1300 or WillowsTheatre.org)

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