Beyond The Fourth Wall 

Our critics review local theater productions.

Animal Crackers — Like The Cocoanuts before it, the second Marx Brothers movie was originally a stage show, so performing it as a play really isn't so strange — if you're the Marx Brothers. George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind's script is funny but relies heavily on the brothers' particular personae to pull it off, so actors wind up doing celebrity impersonations. David Bogdonoff's staging starts slow but soon finds its footing as the zaniness escalates. Timothy Beagley could stand to pick up the pace as Captain Spaulding, because Groucho's lines only work if they keep everyone off balance. Amy Nielson's Harpo slapstick is hilarious, and Tom Reardon's Chico Marx delivery is good though his nonstop footwork is distracting. The cute musical numbers are graced with charming choreography by LoRee Joelle, but it's often difficult to hear the performers singing over the three-keyboard band. — S.H. (Through May 20 at Contra Costa Civic Theatre; or 510-524-6654.)

Bright Ideas -- Macbeth meets the soccer mom set in a clash of juice-boxes in the Shotgun Players' Bright Ideas, which probes just how far parents will go to ensure their children's happiness. Lie? Cheat? Maim? Kill? Don't laugh, it's not that much of a stretch. Playwright Eric Coble nimbly smushes together Shakespeare's tale of a couple twisted beyond redemption and the hunt for the perfect preschool like the halves of a PB&J on organic whole-wheat bread. Joshua and Genevra Bradley have been told that the person their son Mac is on his fourth birthday is the person he will be as an adult. Which means, obviously, that he must be in the perfect preschool, coached past any real or imagined insufficiency, and videotaped every second of his young life. The Macbeth references are legion. There's talk of never being able to wash out a spot (in Shakespeare, it's blood; here it's pesto), a sleepwalking murderer, children named "Mac" and "Duncan," even a ghost at the banquet. Besides catching the Bardic references, it's fascinating watching as Genevra and Joshua's journeys part and intersect and part again. Nasty fun, this story has a certain ring of truth. Parents who have tried to wrestle their kids into the most exclusive schools will get it; people without kids might decide to stay that way. — L.D. (Through April 23 at the Ashby Playhouse; or 510-841-6500.)

Desire Under the Elms -- While there's plenty of desire simmering under the trees that surround the Cabot farm, nothing comes without a price, and Eugene O'Neill is going to make sure you know it. The play some call "the first real American tragedy" is heavy with Biblical and classical references, from the Old Testament names of the characters (Ephraim, Simeon, Peter) to the punishment dealt the murderous. Written quickly in 1924, allegedly straight from a dream, Desire Under the Elms pretty much covers the "thou shalt not covets" and throws some of the deadly sins into the bargain. At the center of the action is the farm, which might belong to young Eben through his late mother, or Eben and his half-brothers, or Eben's father Ephraim. Depends on whom you talk to. Things get more complicated when Ephraim remarries, because young Abbie is determined to become a landed woman herself, even if it means laying with her much-older husband, whom she clearly doesn't like. It's a complex play, but not a subtle one; the ending is as predictable as anything that sprang from Aeschylus' stylus. Fortunately, director Lee Sankowich can be a subtle guy, and his actors resist the urge to overplay their parts. That makes for an intense night at CenterREP, marked by passion and violence in near-equal measure. — L.D. (Through April 22 at the Dean Lesher Center for the Arts; or 925-943-7469.)

Disney's Beauty and the Beast — Now that Disney has opened the floodgates, productions of this Broadway musical are cropping up in high schools across the country. But Contra Costa Musical Theatre does it up right for its East Bay premiere, with impressive rotating sets, colorful costumes, and big production numbers with minimal choreography. Alan Menken and Howard Ashman's memorable songs from the animated movie are supplemented with less memorable filler by Menken and Tim Rice that seem unaware that they're filler — the Beast's ho-hum lament ends the first act instead of the dancing-flatware show-stopper "Be Our Guest." Megan Gallup is a radiant Belle, and Nephi Speer sings well as the Beast, though his crouching and moaning are more geriatric than fearsome. But the show lights up considerably whenever the enchanted knickknacks or preening lout Gaston (Joshua Hollister) are onstage. — S.H. (Through May 13 at the Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts; or 925-943-7469.)

Gypsy — If a musical about burlesque queen Gypsy Rose Lee sounds racy, you've probably been asleep for the past 47 years. Anyone who's seen the countless high-school productions of this early Sondheim musical knows that nightmare stage mom Rose is the star of the show — or ought to be, anyway. Any role originated by Ethel Merman requires some serious pipes, and Donna J. Turner, brassy enough when speaking, could stand to pump up the volume as Rose in this Town Hall production by artistic director Kevin T. Morales that's too reminiscent of those school stagings. The intentionally shrill kiddie act is often hilarious (kudos to 8th-grader Erika Leigh Henningsen as child star wannabe Baby June), and Jennifer Graham's growth from shrinking violet Louse to strutting Gypsy is a treat. But the energy flags between songs, and there are too many madcap moments in which no one on or off stage seems to know what's going on. — S.H. (Through April 22 at Town Hall Theatre; 925-283-1557 or

Live from Town Hall — This series of live radio shows is performed from actual golden-age radio scripts of classic dramas and comedy series every other Monday in April and June (but not May). In a lively, intimate environment where the cast chats with the audience between tapings for eventual broadcast on a station yet to be determined, the stage becomes littered with discarded pages as actors rise from their chairs to read their lines into a row of microphones. Another actor at the sound effects table creates footsteps, slamming doors, clinking glasses and comic crashes. — S.H. (Through June 19 at Town Hall Theatre; 925-283-1557 or

Relative Values — If the waning of the British aristocracy is a topic you're keen on, this minor work by community-theater staple Noël Coward may be your cup of tea. Coward's wry patter ought to be snappier in this community production staged by Robert Taylor (doing double duty as loquacious butler Crestwell), if not for drollery's sake then because this trifle oughtn't be nearly three hours long. There are some funny one-liners amid the class-anxious nonsense about a lord marrying a Hollywood starlet, but some of them fly under the radar in the low-key, vaguely-British-accented performances. Loralee Windsor gains steam as the elder countess when she stops being at sea and starts sweetly scheming, and Marilyn Hughes likewise livens up when she's put in an impossible (and outrageously coincidental) situation as maid Moxie. — S.H. (Through May 6 at Masquers Playhouse; or 510-232-4031.)


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