Beyond the Fourth Wall 

Our critics review local theater productions.

Dreaming in a Firestorm — "Please let it mean something," Tim Barsky begins, "that one winter's night I walked from Hunters Point to Oakland." Right now Dreaming in the Firestorm is a monologue with music about how he couldn't get a ride home after a gig, and ended up wandering downtown San Francisco trying to cadge a ride home and thinking deep thoughts about fire. Loose and sprawling? Yes. Affecting and wise? Those too, if you can keep track of what's going on. There are places where Firestorm doesn't hang together yet, and the connection between the poetic and the prosaic feels forced. But there's a lot of good stuff in here. — L.D. (Through July 29 at 2232 MLK; or 510-644-2204.)

Faulty Intelligence — Roy Zimmerman's evening of satirical songs might be more at home in a nightclub or campus quad than a theater, and mocking the right wing is obviously preaching to the choir in Berkeley, but Zimmerman does so with such charm and devilish wit that none of those caveats matter much. He takes on the PATRIOT Act, intelligent design, anti-gay-marriage hysteria, the War on Terror, English-only reactionaries, Dick Cheney, and Ann Coulter with his acoustic guitar, brief segueing patter, clever rhymes, and pliant meter. — S.H. (Through July 27 at the Marsh Berkeley; or 415-826-5750.)

Footloose — Dean Pitchford and Walter Bobbie's stage adaptation of Pitchford's 1984 screenplay relies heavily on familiarity with the Kevin Bacon flick, and incorporates almost the entire movie soundtrack plus new Broadway-style book numbers. But Contra Costa Civic Theatre does it proud with a multilevel set that whets the appetite for the iconic dance moment that never arrives. For a musical about dancing, director Amy Nielson's minimal choreography reminds us that it's about people who haven't danced for a long time. — S.H. (Through August 5 at Contra Costa Civic Theatre; or 510-524-6654.)

Godfellas — Brothers and sisters, I am here to tell you that after a couple of disappointing summers, the San Francisco Mime Troupe is on its best form in years. With Godfellas, a side-splitting look at the narrowing separation between church and state, the troupe returns to all the things it does best — singing, clowning, and raising hell — as it lambastes demagogues who claim to know the will of heaven. This year Ed Holmes took a break from playing Dick Cheney to wrangle the show, and between his direction and a script helmed by Michael Gene Sullivan, Godfellas rocks like the tent revival that opens the story. To the world, Reverend C.B. DeLove (an angelic Sullivan) is out to "reclaim California for God and honor 9/11," but secretly he's in cahoots with an "ecumenical syndicate," and their goals are not nearly so lofty. "I'm not working for Jesus; Jesus is working for me," DeLove gloats. "Tote that cross, boy." Standing against them are civics teacher and Thomas Paine fangirl Angela (Velina Brown, deliciously nerdy) and her friends. But are they really her friends, or will they betray her? And is it possible that she might fall to the dark side? — — L.D. (In various East Bay parks through September 12;

The Inspector General — Nikolai Gogol's The Inspector General describes a town gripped by panic when word comes that a mysterious functionary is coming to town. The mayor and his cronies have plenty to hide, so they fall over themselves to impress the visitor. What they don't know is that they've got the wrong man; Ivan Khlestakov is a lowly clerk who shows up at the right time to be fed, bribed, and offered the mayor's daughter's hand. Whether Ivan is really the inspector general is just one of the things that's different in CentralWorks' new version, which is set in a gated community near Mendocino. Gogol was addressing corruption; CentralWorks is scratching at the national paranoia about terrorism. — L.D. (Through July 30 at the Berkeley City Club; or 510-558-1381.)

Restoration Comedy — Playwright Colley Cibber's 1696 farce Love's Last Shift, the story of a wayward husband who is brought to heel when his prissy wife learns to act the strumpet, ends with his sudden and dramatic reformation. That didn't satisfy another playwright, John Vanbrugh, who thought the climax silly and unbelievable. So in six weeks he wrote a more realistic sequel, The Relapse, wherein the husband backslides and the wife's virtue is tested by the arrival of a new suitor. Playwright Amy Freed (The Beard of Avon) got hold of both works, and saw the potential for something both incisive and deliriously sugar-frosted. In the hands of Sharon Ott and a delightful CalShakes cast, Restoration Comedy is a confection that questions devotion, fidelity, and how our self-perception keeps us from truly fulfilling relationships. — L.D. (Through July 30 at CalShakes; or 510-548-9666.)

The Tempest — Juliàn López-Morillas makes an eloquently melancholy Prospero, exiled duke turned sorcerer, in the San Francisco Shakespeare Festival's free summer production of the bard's swansong. But despite a faceless, omnipresent Blue Man Group of spirits that blends into the walls of Richard Ortenblad's striking text-covered set, this is an oddly static Tempest, the castaways either milling around or running randomly willy-nilly to indicate comedy. Though the decision to have Prospero onstage for the whole play aptly indicates his omniscience, it also accentuates the impression of having nothing better to do. Director Kenneth Kelleher has the cast doing double duty to sometimes confusing and troubling effect, as when Prospero soothes Miranda (a high-strung Julia Motyka) to sleep and turns her into his fairy servant Ariel. It's as though he has hypnotized and enslaved his own daughter. — S.H. (Through September 24 in area parks; or 415-558-0888.)

Twelfth Night — Against its most elaborate set yet, the painted backdrop suggesting a tropical shore framed by graceful columns, Woman's Will gives us a bright, summery Twelfth Night. Set in an atmosphere of revolutionary change as the Caribbean islands gain their independence from Spain, Shakespeare's story of a brother and sister separated by a storm at sea has everything that's hot this year, including pirates, swordfights, and girls dressed as boys. Andrew Aguecheek and Toby Belch swagger through the streets in the uniforms of mismatched militaries, and the air of revolutionary possibility is appropriate to the story of Viola, disguised as a man, wooing the lady Olivia on behalf of Orsino, whom Viola loves. All of which is even more complex when you remember that with Woman's Will, all of the parts are played by women. The acting, while sunny, is uneven. Jodi Feder's Viola-as-Viola is very affecting, but her Viola-as-Cesario mostly smirks; one of her truest moments comes when Orsino (a leonine Leontyne Mbele-Mbong) tells her that women cannot love as much as men do, and we see Viola struggling with her secret. Otherwise, she doesn't seem all that affected by her loss. That said, it's a treat watching former critic colleague and current playwright Erin Blackwell take the stage after years of absence. She makes up for lost time with a goofy, scene-stealing Andrew Aguecheek in spiffy yellow-plumed hat and Southern accent ("I am a great eater of beef and that affects my wit!") Even though it's comic, it's possible to play Twelfth Night so that it ripples with loss and redemption, as CalShakes proved in its production right after 9/11. Woman's Will goes for something lighter and well suited to a afternoon in the park. — L.D. (In Bay Area parks through July 29; or 707-290-7438.)

The Witch's Curse — Lamplighters Music Theatre starts its 54th season with Gilbert & Sullivan's Ruddygore, presented here under its lesser-known alternate title. This isn't one of their better-known efforts to begin with, but that doesn't make it any less hilarious, with an unusually spooky story about nobles cursed to commit a crime a day or die. The singing is sprightly and spot-on throughout, and Charles Martin's cloak-whirling "bad baronet" is a delight of compassionate villainy, as is F. Lawrence Ewing's bashful secret heir to the same cursed title. Some of the humor of sailor Dick Dauntless following a heart that always leads him astray is lost in John Brown's earnest and landlubberly portrayal, and Kathleen Moss' Mad Margaret is merely quirky in the first act, though she livens up later. Peter Crompton's postcard seaside and gloomy castle sets earn applause in themselves. — S.H. (Through July 30 at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and August 3-5 at Dean Lesher; or 925-943-7469.)

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