Beyond the Fourth Wall 

Our critics review local theater productions.

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. — S.H. (Through February 10 at the Village Theatre; or 925-314-3400.)

The Pillowman — Martin McDonagh, an English-born Irishman influenced by Mamet and the Clash alike, has made his name as a dramatist for language as gory as it is wickedly funny. The story of Katurian, who is interrogated by the police because a series of grisly local murders look a lot like his twisted little tales, is a fable about big issues. Even though the material will be too much for anyone who can't stand hearing about bad things happening to children (or evil parents, but at least no animals get it this time), director Les Waters proves once again that he can balance horror and humor. — L.D. (At the Berkeley Rep through March 11; or 510-647-2949)

Sweeney Todd — For the most part, the singing is much stronger than the acting in this community-theater production of Stephen Sondheim's most macabre musical, but that's far preferable to the reverse, given how superb the music is in this bloody tale of a barber's clients being turned into meat pies, and how much information is conveyed while people are singing five different things at once. The large cast navigates admirably through the tricky material, though some songs are cut for length (happily not for content — there's some racy stuff in here). Daren A.C. Carollo's inventive staging is delightfully creepy, with the chorus closing in from all sides of the stripped-down set. — S.H. (Through March 3 at Contra Costa Civic Theatre; or 510-524-9132.)

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. — S.H. (Through February 17 at the Willard Metal Shop Theater; or 800-838-3006.)


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