Beyond The Fourth Wall 

Our critics review local theater productions.

Family Alchemy -- The short stories of authors Grace Paley and Bernard Malamud fit together smoothly, a tendency Traveling Jewish Theatre mines every couple of years, from The Jewbird and Goodbye and Good Luck and Windows and Mirrors to the current Family Alchemy. The current combination, Family Alchemy, is no different, with Paley's "Mother" and "The Story Hearer" comprising a brisk and touching first act and Malamud's longer "The Magic Barrel," about a rabbinical student who decides he needs help finding a bride, kicking in after intermission. Many of the characters are stereotypically Jewish, but the fact that these people are so predictable in no way lessens their charm. While as in most TJT shows there are moments that will resonate more with members of the tribe than those outside of it, the overall effect of Family Alchemy is charming and inclusive. -- L.D. (Through March 12 at the Ashby Stage; or 415-522-0786.)

Hamlet -- Points to Impact for attempting one of Shakespeare's longest and most challenging works in a compact and contemporary form. Artistic director Melissa Hillman has got it down to two and a half hours (alas, poor Yorick), and it still makes sense. But Hamlet is a butt-killer under the best of circumstances, and the basement of LaVal's hardly qualifies as the best of circumstances. And the Impact formula that's emerging -- lots of rushing about, angry music at every turn, an explanatory montage before the first line of text is spoken -- doesn't serve the melancholy Dane as well as it did the other shows. The unevenness of the casting also works against the show. -- L.D. (Through March 18 at LaVal's; or 510-464-4468.)

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; 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. 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. -- L.D. (Through March 12 at TheatreFIRST; or 510-436-5085.)

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 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). -- S.H. (Through March 18 at the Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts; or 925-943-7469.)

Seven Lears -- Howard Barker's play raises some interesting questions about Shakespeare's King Lear: why we hear so little about his queen, and what Lear was like before he started to lose it. But the answer Barker gives is that the king was always so capricious and infantile that it's a miracle that no one assassinated him. Thus Barker strips Lear of his tragedy: He has no heights from which to tumble. There are some amusing aphorisms in the dense, quasiphilosophical dialogue in which characters state their innermost nature frankly and often, and a few genuinely funny bits, but taken in one three-hour dose it's as occasionally illuminating as the ramblings of a speed freak. Director Peter Glazer's stripped-down production accentuates the abstractions, with a minimal set and the underclass dangling from scaffolds, and the Cal student cast plays the characters larger than life, almost clownish. -- S.H. (Through March 12 at Zellerbach Playhouse; or 510-642-9925.)

Shadow Crossing -- Central Works' new play Shadow Crossing probes at the question of legal and illegal immigration like a tongue worrying California's loose tooth. Written by Brian Thorstenson in collaboration with the ensemble, it tells the story of a gay photographer planning to move to Canada to escape US homophobia, his Minuteman-leaning schoolteacher friend, and a young Mexican looking for work who collide in a messy and vital tangle of needs, history, and ideologies. The relationships are played truthfully, the tension is high, and like so many Central Works shows, the ending is satisfyingly ambiguous. But while provocative, it sometimes stumbles. -- L.D. (Through March 26 at the Berkeley City Club; or 510-558-1381.)


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