Beyond the Fourth Wall 

Our critics review local theater productions.

Comedy of Errors — It doesn't take much to make Shakespeare's shortest play work: Set identical-twin master-and-servant pairs loose in the same city, unaware of each other's existence, and wacky high-jinks ensue. It's especially fair game for community theater, and San Leandro Players do fairly enough by it in this outdoor production directed by Marilyn Langbehn. Transplanting the action to 1920s New Orleans works smoothly, as Shakespeare updated the plot from the Roman playwright Plautus to begin with. There are straw hats and summer dresses, mint juleps and Dixieland jazz, and not many attempted Southern accents. The exposition drags, the slapstick could be tighter, and the ladies tackle the verse better than some more prominent gents, but there are clever bits of staging such as freeze-frame soliloquies and reactions that threaten to upstage the dialogue. — S.H. (Through September 3 at San Leandro Casa Peralta; or 510-895-2573.)

Don Giovanni — Mozart's devilish Don Juan tale is given a musically immaculate if conceptually problematic update by Festival Opera, sung in the original Italian. Setting it in a modern nightclub provides an opportunity for an impressively chic set by Matthew Antaky, but also for silly staging that distracts from or works against the music, such as club kids moshing to Mozart. It's strange that Festival Opera conductor and artistic and musical director Michael Morgan's first outing as stage director would undermine the music with distractions such as rain sound effects. Fortunately the singing is beautiful throughout, though Commendatore Clifton Romig's bass is too overshadowed by Brian Leerhuber's pimpish Don Giovanni and Kirk Eichelberger's mincing Leporello for the climax to pack much power — especially when it's reduced to zombie Frankenstein dragging Giovanni off to a cheap S&M dungeon. — S.H. (Through August 20 at Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts; or 925-943-7469.)

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. 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? — L.D. (Through September 1 in East Bay parks;

House of Lucky — Frank Wortham's manic solo show premiered at Impact in 1998, moving on to the Marsh, the Magic, and points east. Eight years later, House is back in the house, and Wortham is just as manic and hilarious, even if the subject matter now has a nostalgic quality. Two days and nights in the life of poet Harper Jones cascade past as Wortham introduces seventeen different characters in ninety minutes, trotting them through the Haight, Cafe du Nord, and the Green Tortoise-like bus-tour company where Jones (barely) ekes out a living. Even in the quiet moments, Wortham and his characters are vibrating on the edge of something — panic? Disaster? Breakthrough? Self-knowledge? — and it's that ride that makes this more than just a document of what San Francisco was like at the end of the dot-com era, or what it's like to be young, broke, and free. — L.D. (Through August 26 at LaVal's Subterranean; or 510-464-4468.)

Ragnarok: The Doom of the Gods — This year's Shotgun Players free summer show is an epic undertaking, loaded with masks, puppets, and double-crosses as the ancient Norse gods struggle against their fate. The first act is terrific. The second, soporific. This play-within-a-play begins with the gods up to their usual merry pursuits in Asgard, singing, scheming, and eating apples that keep them young. But Odin's beloved son Baldur has been having nightmares about Ragnarok — an apocalyptic battle between the gods and everyone else. So Odin sends Thor and Loki as emissaries to the Primals, hoping to get some intel. That does not go well for our heroes, who are easily trumped by their much-smarter hosts, and they must return to Asgard to begin evasive maneuvers. In the second act, there's lots of singing and running around. The overall story arc is engrossing, the choice of what to include and what to leave out judicious. But then there's the singing. — L.D. (Through September 10 in John Hinkel Park; or 510-841-6500.) The Tempest — Julián 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 swan song. 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. — S.H. (Through September 24 in area parks; or 415-558-0888.)

The Typographer's Dream — One of the great pleasures of interviewing people who love their work is watching how talking about what they care about transforms them. This is sort of what Adam Bock's one-act play is about, but then it turns out to be about a lot of other things too, such as friendship and honesty. Encore Theatre Company ran Dream at San Francisco's Thick House last year, where the Chronicle named it one of 2005's "Top Ten Theater Events in the Bay Area." And no wonder: It's smart, offbeat, and hilarious, charming without being schmaltzy. Happily, Encore decided to bring it home to the Shotgun Players. Even more happily, Encore brought over the original director and all the original actors too. Aimée Guillot, Jamie Jones, and Michael Shipley play three people — a typographer, a geographer, and a stenographer — who love their work, if not necessarily their jobs. Ranged along a long table facing the audience, they might be giving a Career Day presentation, but their careful patter rapidly breaks down as their relationships come to the fore. Faintly reminiscent of Errol Morris' 1997 documentary Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control, where four men who love their quirky work try to explain why, The Typographer's Dream at the Ashby Stage is a sheer delight of pauses, twitches, and surprising insights. — L.D. (Through September 3 at the Ashby Stage; or 510-841-6500).


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