On Stage 

Our critics weigh in on local theater

Reviews by Lisa Drostova and Sam Hurwitt

For complete, up-to-date East Bay theater listings, look under Billboard on the home page for the "Select Category" pulldown, then select "Theater & Performing Arts."

Aida -- This Disney version by Sir Elton John and Sir Tim Rice is to the original opera what The Pirate Movie was to Gilbert & Sullivan: Verdi goes Vegas, the award-winning score a forgettable pastiche of Grease rock, R&B lite, and Elton's idea of gospel. But the Willows production by managing director Andrew Holtz gives it the old razzle-dazzle, the canned music offset by choreographer Colette Eloi's lively dance numbers and universally strong singing, if unevenly miked. Particularly powerful are Megan Ross, delightfully flighty as Egyptian princess Amneris, and a haunted Dawn Troupe-Masi as the enslaved Nubian princess Aida. There's no real chemistry with Jeff Leibow as Aida's bland Egyptian lover, and Hector S. Quintana has two modes as the villainous Zoser -- throwing his head back in an evil laugh or snarling and clenching his fists. The gold-striped set by Tom Benson is agreeably flashy, as are Loran Watkins' costumes, suggesting Egypt by way of Flash Gordon. -- S.H. (Through March 26 at the Willows Theatre; 925-798-1300 or WillowsTheatre.org)

Enemy Combatant -- What are the things we do that others may live? How far are we prepared to go to prevent, say, another 9/11? Is torture an effective and thus acceptable way of getting useful information? These are the questions posed in Gary Graves' Enemy Combatant, and ones that Central Works considers by conflating John Walker Lindh, Abu Ghraib, and Alberto Gonzales into the story of a man up before a military tribunal for treason. The play opens with JAG Captain Rachel Radcliffe (an uncharacteristically unglamorous Jan Zvaifler) arriving at the "Icehouse," an American military base in Afghanistan to defend an American citizen who has been accused of shooting a CIA man in the head. The suspect, Marvin Moorhouse, is, to put it mildly, uncooperative. We learn that's because the whole situation is rigged, and watch with Radcliffe in growing horror as Moorhouse -- who now calls himself Farhid and follows Islam -- tells the story of the riot which left the CIA man dead. As Radcliffe and Moorhouse begin to trust each other, Radcliffe confronts an institutionalized mockery of justice, and must decide whether to follow her conscience or protect her own ass. Since this is a Central Works play being performed in Berkeley, the surprise denouement does smack of liberal wish fulfillment, but that doesn't detract from the intensity of either the performances or the questions raised, vital questions in the wake of torture architect Alberto Gonzales' recent controversial appointment as US attorney general. -- L.D. (At the Berkeley City Club through March 26; CentralWorks.org or 510-558-1381.)

The Just -- On February 17, 1905, an intellectual dressed as a laborer stepped out of a crowd and threw a pipe bomb into the carriage of Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich Romanov, the tsar's uncle. Bits of the grand duke went everywhere, and the Russian Revolution was on. A hundred years later, Russia is still struggling to be free, and people everywhere are still throwing (or carrying, or driving) bombs into carriages, hoping that violence will bring about a peaceful and just society. It's an irony that wasn't lost on Albert Camus, and a story that he explored with great sympathy in The Just, now being performed by the Shotgun Players at the Ashby Playhouse. The Just tells the story leading up to Sergei's disintegration by focusing on the cell of the Revolutionary Socialist Party tasked with the assassination. In an elegant apartment above the route the grand duke's carriage often takes, five people scheme and struggle, wrestling with their politics, their consciences, and each other. As the tension builds, distinct and conflicted personalities emerge. Little historical context is given. Perhaps Camus' point is that the details aren't as critical as what they drive people to do, and not as interesting as the emotional and mental acrobatics required to make intelligent people murderers. -- L.D. (Through April 3 at the Ashby Playhouse. ShotgunPlayers.org or 510-841-6500.)

The Unexpected Man -- This last-minute replacement for Yasmina Reza's popular Art offers Bay Area audiences a rare glimpse at the French playwright's other work. Kevin T. Morales should be applauded for presenting this deliciously nuanced comedy at all, and his minimal staging gives the players room to unleash Reza's ample wit. The action is all inaction, alternating interior monologues of two strangers on a train: a misanthropic novelist stewing in bitterness because no one appreciates his latest book, and a huge fan of his work who finds herself seated across from him and unable to bring herself to start a conversation. Jerry Motta captures the cranky smugness of the author, if not his charismatic authority, and Sarah Andrews Reynolds is hilarious as the increasingly agitated French beauty, her self-assured veneer all the more captivating when undermined by inner neurotic fragility. The stony exterior of each while the other vents beautifully captures the excruciating dance of mock indifference. -- S.H. (Through April 10 at Town Hall Theatre; THTC.org or 925-283-1557.)


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