Beyond the Fourth Wall 

Our critics review local theater productions.

9 Parts of Desire -- A Bedouin who has divorced two husbands, a gravel-voiced Iraqi expat in London drinking Scotch and explaining that Saddam had to go, an Iraqi-American glued to the television looking for family members and wondering if yoga will lessen her terrible despair. This is the Gulf War we haven't seen. The Iraqi-American writer Heather Raffo based her solo show on ten years of interviews with Iraqi women, weaving together stories that as likely to address love as conflict. Some characters are more fully realized than others. The descriptions of atrocities committed under Saddam's regime rival anything that has happened since; from rape to the incineration of people hiding in a bomb shelter, Raffo's script is pitiless. And yet this is also one of her work's great strengths, this fearlessness, this determination to bring the evil out of the shadows and watch it squirm. -- L.D. (Through March 5 at the Berkeley Rep; or 510-647-2949.)

Around the World in Eighty Days -- Having enjoyed a long run in Sacramento, Mark Brown's adaptation of the Jules Verne classic makes its local debut in this handsome Center REP production directed by newly anointed artistic director Michael Butler. Kelly Tighe's set is a knockout, with bare suggestions of latitude and longitude lines surrounding a rotating disc on the floor ringed by clockface numbers that double as all-purpose props throughout the show. With clipped Dread Pirate Roberts enunciation, Mark Anderson Phillips is charmingly stiff-upper-lippy as the unflappable Phileas Fogg, circumnavigating the globe on a bet with his hapless servant Passepartout (Gendell Hernandez in perfect naif mode) and having comic run-ins with colorful natives played by Jeffrey Draper, Rachel Rehmet, and Mark Farrell in a madcap whirl of guises. The comedy is broad and often downright silly, with outrageous accents, random celebrity impressions, and enough running jokes that some are bound to work. -- S.H. (Through March 4 at the Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts; or 925-943-7469.)

Loveplay -- It may be a many-splendored thing, but love also can be a chore, a transaction, or a royal pain in the ass. This point is made with wit and a refreshing lack of goo in Moira Buffini's terribly smart and funny Loveplay, now at TheatreFIRST's new space in Old Oakland. Loveplay is not a play, exactly, but a series of ten vignettes that are more related than they first appear. Beginning in 79 AD with a Roman soldier attempting to buy sexual attentions with unfamiliar coin, and ending at a very awkward party in an expensive modern-day dating agency, six actors play 32 different lovers. The settings range from a forest clearing to a flower-power squat, each in the same geographic location; over two thousand years, what starts as a Roman latrine becomes an abbey, an urban townhouse, an artist's garret in the bad part of town, and so on. The play's construction lets each actor show several different facets, but it's not as confusing as multiple-role shows can be. Director Robin Stanton's cast is nimble and precise, with some really wonderful performances from everyone involved. By and large, the ambiguous endings honestly reflect what love is like in the real world: uncertain, unfinished, unpredictable, part of a larger comedy we can't always appreciate. But here it's a delight. -- L.D. (Through March 6 at TheatreFIRST; or 510-436-5085.)

The Master Builder -- A gem of elegant interpersonal warfare, Henrik Ibsen's The Master Builder explores both the price of success and the playwright's interest in abnormal psychology. Although just as emotionally sharp as anything else in his quiver, The Master Builder also is accessible and darkly humorous, especially in a new translation from ex-Bay Area dramaturg Paul Walsh. And Ibsen could have written the architect Halvard Solness for the subtly regal James Carpenter, who heads up a solid cast under the direction of Barbara Oliver. At the height of his career, Halvard fears that he is to be consumed by the younger generation. It's a fear made more real by the news that his young draftsman Ragnar would like to start designing some buildings himself. Incapable of allowing such a thing, Halvard schemes to keep the younger man quiet by manipulating Ragnar's fiancée.The play is a tense and beautifully crafted story of a powerful man's downfall, and this production a stunning, magnetic interpretation. -- L.D. (Through March 5 at the Aurora; or 510-843-4822.)

My Fair Lady -- Diablo Light Opera Company celebrates the fiftieth anniversary of the classic Lerner and Loewe adaptation of Shaw's Pygmalion with a handsome production helmed by Dianna Shuster. All the favorites from "I Could Have Danced All Night" to "On the Street Where You Live" are exceedingly well sung, the sets and costumes are terrific, and there are some fine dance numbers -- all the perks of a world where the entire marketplace bursts into song at the drop of a top hat. Not as much attention is given to the humor and heart of the play, so the viewer winds up paying as little mind to the plight of poor Eliza Doolittle (Angelique Lucia), bullied into ladylike poise and diction, as does her imperious tutor Henry Higgins (John Hetzler). With a little bit more theater in this musical, it'd come closer to adding up to the sum of its parts. -- S.H. (Through March 18 at the Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts; or 925-943-7469.)

One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest -- Dale Wasserman's 1963 stage adaptation of the Ken Kesey novel is more of an ensemble piece than the 1975 Jack Nicholson flick, and that's nicely reflected in Daren A.C. Carollo's staging. Though the ward aides are just cartoon goons, the cast by and large displays a fine array of maniacal behavior as the inmates. The principals are solid: Mark Manske a live wire as ward interloper-cum-savior R.P. McMurphy, Claire Nail subtly chilling as the overbearing Nurse Ratched, and John Hale mostly stolid as the apparently catatonic Chief Bromden (though the play's device of using him as a wide-eyed quasimystical narrator wears thin). Colin Babcock's bare psych-ward set is particularly effective in that, aside from the impressionistic view through the barred windows, it doesn't even look like a set because it's so well integrated into the space. -- S.H. (Through February 25 at Contra Costa Civic Theatre; or 510-524-6654.)

Over the River and Through the Woods -- "Coots! What's the matter with coots today?" That's what callow Nick (Dillon Siedentopf) would be singing if Joe DiPietro's sentimental comedy were a musical. As is, all Nick can do is glower and kvetch as his full set of Italian-American grandparents smother him with affection: boisterous New Jersey natives on his father's side (strong performances by David Lee and Dory Ehrlich) and quaint immigrant maternal grandparents with Chico Marx accents on the other. (Marian Simpson's accent as grandma Aida would sound Russian were it not for the "-a" tacked onto each word.) Director Renee Echavez could stand to pick up the pace a bit, as the actors give each other's lines a wide berth, but on the whole it's a charming and gently funny show. -- S.H. (Through February 25 at Masquers Playhouse; or 510-232-4031.)

Strange Travel Suggestions -- Travelogue author Jeff Greenwald has been all around the world, and he could tell you some stories. That's just what he's doing in this evening of off-the-cuff tales from his travels, the subject of which is determined by audience volunteers' spins of an elaborately painted Wheel of Fortune so that each night is a different show altogether. His stories are funny, haunting, and suffused with spirituality, and, like any good raconteur's, have been told often enough to have become smooth and polished. The introductory bit about the traveler as sacred fool is less polished and a bit vague, but that's because this isn't theater so much as a loose structure for storytelling, and once the stories start spinning it's hard not to be transported wherever Greenwald and chance conspire to take you. -- S.H. (Through March 3 at the Marsh Berkeley; or 415-826-5750.)


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