What's Happening in East Bay Theater 

Our critics weigh in on local theater.

Bye Bye Birdie -- This 1960 nostalgia piece remains a popular staple on the community circuit despite being less a rock musical than an antirock musical, set in the mythical good old days when rock 'n' roll was something new and scary and bewildering. Pleasanton Playhouse's spirited production helps demonstrate why, capturing some of the humor around the prepackaged sensation (and Elvis clone) Conrad Birdie. The principals sing well for the most part, and dance even better, but the ensemble choruses could stand to be tightened considerably (aside from "We Love You Conrad," which is actually supposed to be grating). The big dance numbers are impressively solid (kudos to choreographer Christina Lazo), and Ron Gasparinetti's set of brightly colored geometric shapes is almost as lively. -- S.H. (Through January 29 at Amador Theater; PleasantonPlayhouse.com or 925-462-2121)

Cabaret -- Ah, the holidays. Time for familiar music, wholesome cheer, nudity, politics, simulated sex, and dripping blood. At least at the Ashby Playhouse, where the Shotgun Players once again resist the Dickensian compulsion by staging Masteroff, Kander, and Ebb's debauched Cabaret through the end of the year. Clifford Bradshaw has come to Weimar Berlin to write his great novel, a task at which he fails miserably once the boisterous, demanding Sally Bowles trips into his life and blithely turns everything upside down. -- L.D. (Through January 29 at the Ashby Stage; ShotgunPlayers.org or 510-841-6500.)

The Pirates of Penzance -- There is a Gilbert & Sullivan song being performed somewhere in the world every minute. And right now, happily, the minute is on our turf, as the Lamplighters sail a bawdily cheerful Pirates of Penzance into port. The fifth collaboration from the twosome is deeply silly, even by G&S standards. The story is driven by a woman's inability to keep straight the words "pilot" and "pirate," and the characteristic twist is based once again on an accident of birth. Young Frederic's nurse Ruth is told to take the child to be apprenticed to be a pilot. But she hears a different word altogether, and Frederic ends up spending his childhood learning the fine art of terrorizing the high seas. But he never wanted to be a pirate. Callow Frederic must decide where his loyalty lies while the stage fills up with bouncing girls, bumbling cops, and an awfully clean-looking batch of pirates. This production is a bright, fun interpretation of the G&S classic. -- L.D. (February 2-5 at the Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts; Lamplighters.org or 925-943-SHOW.)

Twelfth Night -- Shakespeare's comedies are always a web of confusion, but Actors Ensemble's production of one of his most sturdy plays is further complicated by rushed delivery that makes the dialogue hard to follow and leaves no time for characters to concoct the thoughts they're expressing. Combined with several principal actors' tics of looking around wide-eyed, it gives the impression that they're utterly bewildered by the words coming out of their mouths, as though possessed. Between the parsing problems and the fact that most of the actors play two roles, a familiarity with the play would help you discern that heroine Viola (Wendy Welch) is still the same character when she comes out dressed as a man. A few supporting performances, such as Norman Macleod as Sir Toby Belch, Sonya Kreiden-Karaim as Countess Olivia, and director Stanley Spenger as snobby steward Malvolio, stand out for having some relation to the material. -- S.H. (Through February 18 at Live Oak Theatre; AEofBerkeley.org or 510-649-5999.)

Walking the Dead -- Set at the memorial service for a female-to-male transsexual, Walking the Dead sure doesn't look as if it's going to be much fun. But Keith Curran's ensemble work is witty, surprising, and dense with meaning; the story is complex enough to stand up to repeated viewings, and the theatre Q interpretation is funny enough to make that thought palatable, even if there is some heartrending second-act violence. In the messily gorgeous interactions that unfold between family and loved ones, a larger picture emerges. Although Walking has many of the same elements of so many gay-themed shows, it moves past the dull sameness of so much queer theater. Too much queer theater is neophytic and wooden, and yet it's not judged by the same standard as regular theater because to do so would be politically incorrect, a situation the AIDS crisis did not help. In an effort to create noble characters, too many gay-themed plays do not yet let them be real. So audiences are forced to sit through earnest works with one-dimensional characters who are often sick, sarcastic, or some combination thereof and written solely to either move a plot or prove a point. Not so Walking the Dead, the funniest play about some deadly serious subjects imaginable. -- L.D. (Through January 29 at the Berkeley City Club; TheatreQ.org or 510-326-8197.)

Walkin' Talkin' Bill Hawkins -- W. Allen Taylor's one-man show about searching for the father he never knew, the first black disc jockey in Cleveland, shows considerable polish, funny and poignant in all the right places. Directed by Gloria Weinstock from an earlier version helmed by Ellen Sebastian Chang, the production beautifully incorporates old R&B and jazz hits as well as slides and radio clips of father and son. Though Taylor's jive-talking, fictional DJ alter ego the Kid grates a bit, the way he embodies various people on his journey is particularly impressive, from himself as a young boy to various acquaintances of his father's to the mother who withheld his father's identity until it was too late to know him. -- S.H. (Through February 5 at the Marsh Berkeley; TheMarsh.org or 800-838-3006.)

Wrong Turn at Lungfish -- In the confines of a hospital room, a blind and curmudgeonly college professor wants only to muse upon his impending death. If only Anita, the sassy young Brooklyn girl who comes to read to him, would stop distracting him with her shenanigans. This comedy by Danville's Role Players Ensemble tries to mine the differences between the two characters for laughs: While the professor is looking for answers in the work of Baudelaire, Anita recites anecdotes from The Honeymooners. But ultimately, the attempt to probe deep, philosophical questions -- such as why we're here on Earth and where to find solace at the end of life -- is as simplistic and insufferable as a suburban fifteen-year-old spouting existentialism. -- E.S. (Through February 11 at the Danville Village Theatre; 925-314-3463.)


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