Capsule Reviews 

Our critics weigh in on local theater.

The Comedy of Errors -- Sean Daniels, directing Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors in a bright, splashy start to CalShakes' 2004 season, comes up with a new twist to casting the story of two sets of estranged twins getting tangled up -- financially, legally, and romantically -- in the ancient city of Ephesus: Use two funny people and pair them with Chris Brown's larger-than-life-size rod puppets made up and costumed to look like their twin, down to exaggerated bald spots and silly hats. The actors each pilot their doppelgänger with one hand and put the other through the puppet's sleeve, so at least one of the puppet's arms is "live." Puppets and actors are all strong in this show, although Ron Campbell really shines as the Dromios. Meanwhile Andy Murray's Antipholuses swagger and muse, although Murray wrings some unexpected tenderness from his nonpuppet Antipholus as he courts Luciana. The other puppets are expertly steered by black-clad actors whose exposed and very expressive faces add depth to the proceedings. Stacy Ross, one of the only two actors who doesn't get a puppet, is wonderful vamping it up as the maligned wife Adriana. She and James Carpenter as Egeon manage to hold their own in the sea of puppets; as two of the most serious characters in the play, they are dignified without seeming out of place. The seamless integration of the Tymphanic Errants, who hang out stage left and punctuate the action with well-placed bells, whistles, and paradiddles, adds to the charm of the brilliantly colored costumes and puppets and the blobby white set pieces. This one is a keeper for kids and adults alike. (Through June 27 at the Bruns Amphitheatre, Orinda. 510-548-9666 or CalShakes.org)

Eclipsed -- A group of inmates is forced to strip naked so its members can undergo public humiliation. Held without trial and occasionally beaten severely, many are completely innocent of any crime. The locale, however, isn't Abu Ghraib. It's a Magdalen Asylum, one of the homes built by the Catholic Church to shelter and succor members of "this most wronged and helpless class of God's creatures": the Fallen Woman. Originally the Magdalen Asylums were inhabited by prostitutes trying to find another form of employment. But as the prostitute population fell, the nuns started filling beds with unwed mothers, the developmentally challenged, and plain old "difficult" girls. Backbreaking "penance" over washboards and presses was supposed to purify the inmates, many of them young and recently forced to give up their newborn infants, many of them brought to the asylums by angry parents. Not many people knew of the Catholic Church's great shame until playwright Patricia Burke Brogan brought it to light in 1992 with her award-winning play Eclipsed. Brogan's penitents seem to have it easy, which makes the play seem lacking. It's hard to understand why the inmates don't just dogpile a nun, take her keys, and stroll on out. There's plenty of fight in the engaging yet somewhat overdone Wilde Irish production of Eclipsed. In fact, there's almost too much fight -- it's hard to say whether it's a weakness in the script, or a directorial decision by Gemma Whelan -- but this production starts out ratcheted so emotionally high that there isn't much room for the actors to move. (Through June 27 at the Berkeley City Club and then at San Francisco's Magic Theatre from July 16-25)

Master Class -- The life of Maria Callas is still studded with mysteries. One of the greatest opera singers of all time, she redefined the form. Conductors fell over themselves pulling out operas that had languished in obscurity because there was finally someone capable of singing them. She was a consummate artist who worked incredibly hard on every aspect of her craft, yet her artistry was often overshadowed by public distortion of her troubled personal life. Her troubled childhood with a domineering mother, her marriage to the much older Giovanni Battista Meneghini and his abuse of his position as her manager, her affair with Aristotle Onassis, the unproven rumors of a love child; all of these things fascinated the public. Equally titillating were the charges that Callas was unreasonable, temperamental, capricious; that she canceled performances at a whim and deliberately sowed rivalry with other singers. Master Class integrates some of the details of her life without getting too far into the soup of what did and did not really happen. For all of the drama, mystery, and sadness around Callas' life, McNally's homage is relaxed, humorous, and open. While there are a few opera in-jokes, they're not off-putting to the rookie. And Rita Moreno captures Callas effortlessly, down to the precise hand gestures that recall photos of Callas in performance and the beautifully modulated voice. (Through July 18 at the Berkeley Rep; 510-647-2949 or BerkeleyRep.org)

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