Beyond the Fourth Wall 

Our critics review local theater productions.

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. 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 Rocky Horror Show — Anyone who's seen the movie Fame knows that among the cognoscenti, people who have never seen The Rocky Horror Picture Show are called "virgins," and that those who have become its habitués are "sluts." But did you know that those who haven't seen the original stage production, The Rocky Horror Show, are "masturbators"? Clearly, it was time to reduce the number of masturbators in Lafayette. So the Town Hall Theatre, ever concerned with civic duty, stepped into the breach with the most outrageous thing that's happened on a Contra Costa stage in years, maybe ever. Kevin Morales thought one show a season should be a little riskier. Last season's horse-frightener was Five Women Wearing the Same Dress, which includes sex talk and characters smoking dope. This season, it's The Rocky Horror Show. And it's a doozy, although in a time when numbingly clinical hot and cold porn flows out of the Internet tap and Girls Go Wild for ugly baseball caps, it's sweet and clever by comparison. Indeed, there's something nostalgic, almost wholesome, about the production, from the fresh-faced Usherette who sings the opening song to the tenderness with which Dr. Frank N. Furter tells his visitors "Don't dream it, be it" in the last big number. But a gentle reminder to parents who don't remember the exact plot: This story contains sex. — L.D. (Through September 23 at the Town Hall Theatre; or 925-283-1557.)

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. 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.)

Urinetown, the Musical — "This is not a happy musical," announces the friendly but villainous Officer Lockstock (Steve Rhyne), and indeed, Mark Hollmann and Greg Kotis' New York Fringe sensation turned Tony-winning Broadway smash is a very dark comedy and only gets darker, depicting a drought-plagued dystopia (or pisstopia) in which people have to pay to pee. But it's also a hilarious metamusical packed with winks at works from West Side Story to Les Miz. Contra Costa Musical Theatre tackles the subversive silliness and wild mix of genres impressively well in Jeff Collister's madcap production. Danielle Levin is priceless as an adorable moppet pointing out plot inconsistencies, Rena Wilson irrepressibly chipper as the Pollyannaish daughter of the dastardly CEO (an appropriately slick and paternal Scott Phillips), and Nephi Speer's earnest unassumingness serves him well as pure-hearted revolutionary Bobby Strong. — S.H. (Through September 30 at Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts; or 925-943-7469)


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