Capsule Reviews 

Our critic weighs 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 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)

The Miser -- The Shotgun Players take a big step away from the seriousness of many of their recent productions (Oedipus Rex and The Water Principle come to mind as two plays that nobody would identify as laugh riots) to present a bright, sexed-up version of Molière's intelligent, witty comedy The Miser. A strong cast led by Clive Worsley as the vilest, most lascivious Harpagon imaginable cavort around a Winchester Mystery House-like set in candy-colored costumes. Harpagon is roundly hated by everyone (including his children) for his parsimoniousness. Both his son Cleante (a very funny Andy Alabran in one of his strongest turns yet) and daughter Elise (the moppet-like Emily Jordan) wish to marry; a dream Harpagon manages to stymie either by withholding the necessary funds or -- in the case of his son -- trying to marry the girl in question himself. Meanwhile there's a strongbox of 10,000 gold crowns hidden in the garden, mistaken identity, and a great deal of pouting, stamping, scheming, and garment-tossing in the best tradition of French farce melded with Italian commedia dell'arte -- after slyly lambasting the bourgeoisie, one of Molière's great passions. Shotgun's high-energy The Miser is unalloyed amusement, a saucy, rollicking ride that makes farce fun again. (Through May 2 at the Julia Morgan Center; 510-704-8210 or ShotgunPlayers.org)

Smoke and Mirrors -- With its remote location, brilliant and contested screenplay, and ready supply of deadly weapons, William Osborne and Anthony Herrera's Smoke and Mirrors bears a distinct family resemblance to Ira Levin's brilliantly twisty Deathtrap. There are other similarities too -- a married couple with the cracks starting to show, a young and apparently naive man marked for extinction, and a buffoonish outsider who threatens to blow the whole intricate plan open. Smoke, which follows the machinations of writer Clark Robinson and producer and director Hamilton Orr as they scheme to rid themselves of the loutish movie star Derek Coburn, is a breakneck romp through Hollywood politics, New Age self-actualization, and marital fidelity. Actor Derek Lux as the young, high-jinks-prone stud with the same first name fits larger chunks of scenery into his mouth than one would think humanly possible. Unlike its better-known predecessor, the Playhouse West production of Smoke never gets very scary. That may be because it's consistently more humorous, or it may be a result of how director Lois Grandi has chosen to play it here. Whatever the case, this is slightly more family-friendly than the darker Deathtrap. Smoke is improbable but funny, and the twists that aren't as surprising cleverly conceal the ones that are. (Through April 24 at the Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts; 925-942-0300 or DLRCA.org)

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