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.)

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;

The Merchant of Venice — CalShakes artistic director Jonathan Moscone is worried his new show will offend, but darn it, he's staging that most contentious of Shakespeare's plays anyway. He needn't have worried. Sure, there's anti-Semitism and bigotry in Merchant, so much so that whole rafts of scholars and critics have dedicated their lives to explaining the context that birthed the play. But all the wrangling aside, Merchant was intended as a romantic comedy. A young man and a young woman overcome various obstacles — notably debt and a dead father's wishes — to find each other. Shylock probably wasn't meant to hold the central position, but Shakespeare outdid himself in the writing of Shylock. The moneylender has some tremendous speeches, the kind actors would trade a pound of their fair flesh to deliver. So the play has come to be about Shylock, and it is often performed very seriously — and ponderously — by people who do not want to give offense. Director Daniel Fish has reframed the work so that it's more balanced — and absurd. The result is a gutsy dose of stinging humor that flays bigotry, modern celebrity culture, and the obsession with money. If you see The Merchant of Venice just once in your life, this is the production to catch. And if you think you know Merchant, this one will make you think again. — L.D. (Through September 3 at CalShakes; or 510-548-9666.)

The Odd Couple -- It's natural enough that this 1965 Neil Simon comedy spawned a successful TV series in the '70s, because many of what would become well-worn sitcom tropes are already there. There's the single set of an implausibly huge New York apartment, the weekly poker game of wisecracking pals, and particularly the mismatched divorced guys living together. One is cranky and sloppy, the other is a nervous clean freak, and then the proverbial fun begins. The punch lines don't exactly zing in Willows artistic director Richard Elliott's production, but it's considerably enlivened by Cassidy Brown's jittery Felix Unger, an excellent foil for Christopher Hayes' glowering Oscar Madison. Their double date with the tittering Pigeon sisters in the second episode -- er, act -- is appropriately cringeworthy, as is the impressively tacky period decor in Tom Benson's set. -- S.H. (Through September 24 at the Willows; or 925-798-1300.)

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).

Voices of Activism: Crawford — Allegedly, there's an invisible bubble around the Bay Area. Inside, you'll find peaceniks, pro-choicers, and people who use terms like "European American." Whether it's trying to figure out what happened in the 2004 election or why we're still in Iraq, people here are fond of saying, "Well, you know we live in a bubble." John Warren is not satisfied with that. The director and playwright wants to look past the bubble, an impulse that sees its logical expression in documentary theater meant to encourage political dialogue. Warren and his collaborator Kim Fowler are intelligent, even-handed, and peaceable. One marvels that they weren't eaten alive when they visited Crawford, Texas, to interview the noisy crowd of supporters and detractors coalescing around antiwar protester Cindy Sheehan. All of the text is exactly as the veterans, activists, and townspeople spoke it. — L.D. (Wednesday, August 30, 7:30 p.m., La Peña Cultural Center.


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