Beyond the Fourth Wall 

Our critics review local theater productions.

all wear bowlers — Geoff Sobelle and Trey Lyford are interested in Laurel and Hardy. Lyford got so fixated that he failed the first year of his MFA program because he was always in the library researching the duo, looking for clues about their relationship. When Lyford and Sobelle met, they fell naturally into developing all wear bowlers, a fabulously comic romp that merges the Absurdist theater of the '50s and '60s with the silent films of the '20s and '30s. This is clowning, but of an elegant and subversive sort, full of impeccably rendered ventriloquism and sleight of hand, pratfalls, and funny voices. Oh, and a gleeful disregard for the fourth wall, with the two performers interacting extensively with the audience, the lighting, and the mechanics of the stage. The smoothness of the delivery speaks of the years the two have spent honing this show, which has been all over the world. All wear bowlers is a dizzying, perfect collision of Absurdism, vaudeville, and partner routines — or, if you prefer, Beckett for people who don't like Beckett. — L.D. (Through December 23 at the Berkeley Rep; BerkeleyRep.org or 510-647-2949.)

Carol of the Bells — Town Hall Theatre Company of Lafayette's brand-new, original holiday show by artistic director Kevin T. Morales is a ramshackle affair that may be best thought of as a musical revue somewhat encumbered by plot. Three sugar-plum fairies roll into a typical suburb, tasked with bringing Christmas cheer like the North Pole version of AmeriCorps, which seems mostly to consist of doping people's coffee and cocoa. The trouble is, the fairies have their own problems, and come off as cheerless and commonplace as everybody else, despite a wisecracking talking cat who's also kind of grim. The script gets bogged down in exposition about fairy bylaws, but the musical selections are fun, ranging from well-known Christmas chestnuts to pop songs borrowed from KT Tunstall, the White Stripes, Brian Setzer, Cole Porter, Three Dog Night, Mulan, and even Barbie as the Princess and the Pauper. — S.H. (Through December 24 at Town Hall Theatre; THTC.org or 925-283-1557.)

The Forest War — Playwright and director Mark Jackson's Asian-flavored The Forest War is very much rooted in the idea of place, and how it affects human interaction. The story is a mashup of anime, King Lear, and the nightly news. After winning a grueling war to see who gets control of the life-giving forest, aged Lord Kurag passed the ceremonial sword to a younger man. Conflict arises when that man turns out to be not Kain, his volatile son, but Kulan, a nobleman with dirt under his nails. Kain sets out to discredit the peace-loving Kulan, and things take a Clintonian turn. As well intentioned as Kulan is, can he possibly outmaneuver the Byzantine Kain — and his own indiscretions? This is an opulent show by Shotgun standards, from the elaborate pan-Asian costuming to the live music, which includes timpani, chimes, and shakuhachi. But The Forest War could have stood another round of workshopping. Sometimes the language moves beyond heightened into impenetrable, making for a cerebral product that can be difficult to connect with emotionally. Perhaps this is the way it is in the Asian theater forms Jackson is mining, but American audiences, raised on more realism and less exposition, may find the going difficult. That said, this is a gutsy show. As awkward as it is in places, there's no question that it's beautiful and powerful. Jackson has an eye for the show-ending image, and his Forest War is a bold undertaking that uses ancient forms to tell a modern story of love, politics, and needless bloodshed. — L.D. (Through January 14 at the Ashby Stage; ShotgunPlayers.org or 510-841-6500.)

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