Beyond The Fourth Wall 

Our critics review local theater productions.

Animal Crackers— 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. — S.H. (Through May 20 at Contra Costa Civic Theatre; or 510-524-6654.)

Five Women Wearing the Same Dress— You hole up five bridesmaids in a Knoxville bedroom during a wedding reception, and what do you get? In this 1993 comedy you get two hours of catty "girl talk" as imagined by American Beauty screenwriter and Six Feet Under creator Alan Ball. The small cast and director Daren A.C. Carollo keep things moving pleasingly, even if they're not moving anywhere in particular. Kelly Tighe's twee country-manor bedroom set and Melissa Paterson's garishly rosy bridesmaid dresses capture just the right level of kitsch without taking it over the top. If the characters are a bit more two-dimensional (the wide-eyed Christian, the casual-sex poster girl, the brassy lesbian), the lively performers aren't to blame, though it's disorienting to have characters talking about how much older or younger they are when they all look pretty much the same age. — S.H. (Through June 10 at Town Hall Theatre; or 925-283-1557.)

The Glass Menagerie — Tennessee Williams probably didn't intend for his Glass Menagerie to be taken as a gauzy, nostalgic look at a family lost in time. His journals and letters reveal discontent and struggle that wind through all of his characters and scenarios. Written while Williams was at MGM working on a Lana Turner vehicle, The Glass Menagerie follows the implosion of the Wingfield clan. Tom dreams out his days working in a shoe warehouse. Meanwhile his chatty mother hustles magazine subscriptions, trying to make enough money to get her reclusive daughter Laura trained in some lucrative skill. It's easy to play these characters in soft focus, but in the robust and troubling Berkeley Rep production, director Les Waters and his actors don't fall prey. Emily Donahoe's Laura is fine as long as she can stay within the cushioned world she has created for herself and interact only with her family. Rita Moreno's Amanda likewise is tough and clear-headed, the silliness of her thirty-year-old party dress aside. As Tom, Erik Lochtefeld is twitchy, slumped, shabby, and ultimately poetic. — L.D. (Through July 2 at the Berkeley Rep; or 510-647-2949.)

Island of Animals— More family entertainment should strike the balance between keeping it lively for the kids and engaging for the adults as does this fable from the Rasa'il by the Ikhwan al-Safa of 10th-century Iraq, adapted and directed by Hafiz Karmali for Golden Thread and Ballet Afsaneh. There are a few anachronistic jokes thrown in, but mostly it's the way the actors and dancers embody animals and spirits through movement that keeps entertaining a conceptually dense parable about all the animals assembling a defense team to appear before the King of the Jinn to establish whether humans or animals are superior. The tone is light, the arguments thought-provoking, and the production design striking. — S.H. (May 26-28 at Park Cinema, Fremont; or 415-401-8081.)

Money and Run, Episode 4: Go Straight, No Chaser — Jimmy Jake (Run) and Robbie Jean (Money) are the most charismatic liquor-store robbers in all of Cudrup County, so beloved that they can barely get away after the register is emptied because they're so busy signing autographs and kissing babies. No, it doesn't make any sense. Let go of that expectation, or indeed any desire for serious theatah, and just let the Bon Jovi wash over you as Rawley's homage to every incomprehensible '80s action television show trots out the sexy antihero couple, a scowling cop, a bitch-queen DA in perfectly square shoulder pads, and a game (if completely superfluous) narrator. — L.D. (Through May 27 at LaVal's; or 510-464-4468.)

Richard III — One of Shakespeare's most gleeful villains, Richard is bloodthirstier than Iago and untroubled by Macbeth's scruples. But where the other two plays are notable for their trim, streamlined structures, this one is packed with kings, dukes, and queens who are alive, dead, or moving from one state to the other. Things can get confusing fast. This is a challenge Subterranean Shakespeare addresses unsatisfactorily in an otherwise elegant production at the Berkeley Art Center. It's difficult to keep track of who's who, especially since several of the actors play multiple characters. That said, it's stronger overall than the run of SubShakes' work. — L.D. (Through May 20 at the Berkeley Art Center; 510-276-3871.)

The Sum of Us — So you bring your date home, someone you really fancy, and things are going swimmingly. Then your dad comes into the living room, curious to meet your date, and settles down on the couch between you. Mortifying, right? Imagine how much worse it is when you're queer, and your date doesn't have nearly the same kind of loving, open relationship with his family that you do with yours. That's the premise of David Stevens' The Sum of Us, a sweet, earnest, hanky-wrecker of a play about family, society, and how we feel about ourselves. It can be a little obvious, but its heart is definitely in the right place. — L.D. (Through May 20 at the Dean Lesher Center; or 510-326-8197).

World Music — Twelve years ago, in a three-month paroxysm, Rwanda's Hutus systematically turned on their Tutsi neighbors. With guns, machetes, and clubs they killed at least 800,000 people while the rest of the world stood by, unwilling to intercede. Playwright Steve Waters focuses on how European colonization set the stage and what might have happened after in Europe, as politicians struggled to respond. In World Music, "Irundi" stands in for Rwanda and Burundi, and the people are "Muntu" and "Kanga" instead of "Hutu" and "Tutsi." Their story, and a plea for Western aid, is brought to Brussels by Geoff Fallon, a passionate British member of the European Parliament, and his Irundian friend, Jean Kiyabe — which is where things start to get slippery. Who are the victims and who are the collaborators? And how hard will Geoff push? It's the usual sort of thought-provoking TheatreFIRST fare, this time featuring the company's artistic director Clive Chafer as the protagonist. There's powerful stuff going on, but it's obscured by the awkward "memory play" construction. — L.D. (Through May 21 at the Old Oakland Theatre; or 510-436-5085).


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