Beyond the Fourth Wall 

Our critics review local theater productions.

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 28 at the Ashby Stage; or 510-841-6500.)

Incorruptible — There aren't a lot of plays that kick off with comedy routines about a dead Jew in a sack, and that's definitely a good thing. After that, the only real surprise in Michael Hollinger's farce about 13th-century monks digging up the church graveyard to pass off parishioners' remains as holy relics is that it's too lightweight even to be properly offensive. Jerry Motta amps up the wackiness both as director and as the venal Brother Martin in this Role Players Ensemble production; you're not always sure why people are yelling, but there's little danger of missing a punch line. Doug Ham's stone-cellar set is nicely realistic, and the lively cast features Ben Ortega as a minstrel con artist press-ganged into the priesthood and Paula Wujek as a peasant pimping her daughter and trying to sneak in to pray for free. - S.H. (Through February 10 at the Village Theatre; or 925-314-3400.)

Rude Boy — When hip-hop spoken-word artist Azeem breaks into rhyme in this solo show, it's usually the feverish stream-of-consciousness of a Jamaican-American mental ward inmate haunted by voices, hardship, and guilt. His rants about the San Francisco chapter of the Rodney King riots, allegorical battles between rage and reason, and the "alphabet police" watching you through your TV are frenetic and totally compelling, interrupted only by a few blackout-separated vignettes late in the show that would be better incorporated into the monologue. The ending is a bit abrupt and where we are in the present isn't clear, but Azeem's wordplay and intensity makes it well worth staying there for an hour or so. — S.H. (Through January 27 at the Marsh Berkeley; or 800-838-3006.)

The Tempest — Ragged Wing Ensemble's first stab at Shakespeare (and third show overall) has some interesting innovations, most notably its thought-provoking treatment of much-maligned Caliban, portrayed compellingly by Christine Odera with some skillful mask work. Though what it signifies is sometimes mysterious, the choreography by Amy Sass (who doubles as a sullen, stony-faced Ariel) has a mystical air appropriate to the play. Other novelties in Keith C. Davis' production, such as the video-projected backgrounds, new age music, and interminable repetition of a key speech during an added opening dumbshow, distract more than they add. Meanwhile, the basics of the play are neglected; the limp comic bits are far less funny than Jeffrey Hoffman's wild-eyed wizard posturing as Prospero. Guileless daughter Miranda, played by actual teenager Ariel Hart, stands out for her believability and naturalism, while most other characters come off as childish in trying to compete with the multimedia fripperies. - S.H. (Through February 17 at the Willard Metal Shop Theater; or 800-838-3006.)


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