Beyond the Fourth Wall 

Our critics review local theater productions.

All the Great Books (abridged)— The Reduced Shakespeare Company, which started at the Renaissance Faire in Novato and went on to a nine-year run in London's West End, returns to the Bay Area with two of its madcap shows in rotating repertory as part of Center REP's season. Stronger overall than The Complete History of America, below, this fast-paced mashup of Western lit features three guys tearing through a barrage of jokes both corny and inspired, audience participation, fourth-wall busting, and a hilarious recap of the Homeric epics in iambic heptameter. This is an introductory course: No prerequisites except a sense of humor. — S.H. (Through March 3 at the Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts; DLRCA.org or 925-943-7469.)

Arsenic and Old Lace — There are plenty of reasons community theaters aren't going to lay Joseph Kesselring's 1939 farce to rest anytime soon. It's a sure crowd-pleaser, with two dotty old ladies fond of poisoning people, a guy who thinks he's Teddy Roosevelt, opportunities for Boris Karloff and Peter Lorre impressions, pointed jokes about theater critics, and enough characters running around that it doesn't matter much if some performances aren't up to snuff. The madcap characters are lively enough in Betsy Bell Ringer's nicely paced staging, grounded by Rob Bradshaw's quaint living-room set and Loralee Windsor's colorful Œ40s costumes, though the young lovers are stiff and nonreactive enough to make one pine for Cary Grant's over-the-top mugging in the film version. — S.H. (Through February 24 at Masquers Playhouse; Masquers.org or 510-232-4031.)

The Birthday Party — Contemporary Western theater is informed by discomfort. Architects have formed a near-biblical series of begats, with one playwright influencing the next. Martin McDonagh was influenced by Sam Shepard and David Mamet; McDonagh's The Pillowman was just extended at the Berkeley Rep and the Shotgun Players have Mamet's The Cryptogram coming up in May. Mamet was in turn influenced by Harold Pinter, whose The Birthday Party is now up at the Aurora. And there probably wouldn't have been Pinter had there not first been Beckett, who was just given a lovely homage in the Rep's all wear bowlers. The point being that all of these men, when their work first surfaced, pissed people off. Audiences yelled at the stage or walked out, critics wrote scathing reviews, shows closed prematurely (the first run of The Birthday Party, in 1958, lasted a miserable four days.) Yet in each case something about the work was vital and resonant enough that eventually it found an audience; people discovered that these playwrights were speaking to their fears, whether of violence, obsolescence, social disapproval, or political oppression. The Tom Ross-directed production at the Aurora shimmers with menace that all the cabbage-rose wallpaper and porcelain kitties of Richard Olmstead's set design can't conceal. The play opens with Meg serving breakfast to her husband and ends just before lunch the next day. In the interim, there's an interrogation, a nightmarish party, some necking, wanton destruction of a musical instrument, and a mysterious "Organization" that might or might not be extralegal, or even real. Fifty years ago, people couldn't hack The Birthday Party. Now its ambiguity and the questions it raises are a major part of its charm, especially in this well-tuned version. — L.D. (Through March 4 at the Aurora; AuroraTheatre.org or 510-843-4822.)

Cartoon — Steven Yockey's musical comedy about cartoon violence suits Berkeley's Impact Theatre perfectly — it's fast-paced, funny, and drenched in pop culture. Though it loses some steam at the end, there's food for thought, and some surprisingly touching moments amid the pratfalls and bloodshed of this Saturday-morning insurgency against a ruthless dictatorship of repeated shticks and theme tunes. An animated cast creates a credible toontown in Mark Routhier's bare-bones production, particularly Chris Yule as the soulful, world-weary marionette Winston Puppet and Marissa Keltie as the tempestuous and nonverbal Damsel. If you see only one play about cartoon characters killing each other this year, make it this one. — S.H. (Through March 10 at La Val's Subterranean; ImpactTheatre.com or 510-464-4468.)

The Complete History of America (abridged) — This haphazard romp through US history doesn't hold together as well All the Great Books, the Reduced Shakespeare Company's other offering alternating with it in Center REP's season. The long, strange, soft-boiled-detective trip through the last half of the 20th century reads like Guy Noir lite, and the politics get a little heavy-handed even for the bluest area of a blue state, but there's some drop-dead hilarious stuff along the way, especially (of all things) the Lincoln assassination, silent-movie style. Also contains a stump-the-performers pop quiz and a de facto splash zone. A ticket stub for one RSC show gets you $5 off the other. — S.H. (Through March 3 at the Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts; DLRCA.org or 925-943-7469.)

Guys and Dolls — Frank Loesser's musical romantic comedy of low-life gamblers and Salvation Army missionaries is always a crowd-pleaser, and Contra Costa Musical Theatre gives it a robust full-scale staging under the direction of Jennifer Denison Perry, with wildly colorful costumes by Melissa Paterson and brightly busy Broadway backdrops by Kelly Tighe. Terry D'Emidio's hilarious and nuanced Adelaide gives the whole production a touch of blue-collar class, and Noel Anthony's voice is lovely, but his Sky Masterson comes off as achingly sincere from the outset, at odds with his hard-boiled dialogue, and has nowhere to go from there. Joel Roster is a solid and funny Nathan Detroit, and Meghann May's coloratura warbling and wholesome charm are just right for Sgt. Sarah Brown. — S.H. (Through March 17 at the Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts; DLRCA.org or 925-943-7469.)

Nathan the Wise — Set in 1192, during the Third Crusade, Gotthold Lessing's Nathan the Wise chronicles a brief moment of cooperation between three major world religions. The noble Sultan Saladin controls Jerusalem, but he's having a cashflow problem that the wealthy Jewish merchant Nathan might be able to help him fix. Nathan has just returned from a business trip to find that his daughter Rachel was rescued from a house fire by a mysterious young Templar whom Saladin has pardoned. The play's characters — Muslim, Jew, and Christian — must find common ground, which they do through a surprising series of revelations both philosophical and romantic, intellectual and lightly comic. Nathan the Wise is billed as a play for our time, and from the faith angle that's certainly true. But this nicely streamlined Edward Kemp translation — William Taylor's is clunky and high-falutin', full of "twixts" and the like — retains the texture of its own time, especially in the revelations of who is related to whom, which are downright Shakespearean in their complexity. On opening night the actors were having difficulty expressing these tricky relationships, but that should ease with the run. — L.D. (Through March 4 at the Old Oakland Theatre and at TJT in SF March 9-11; TheatreFirst.com or 510-436-5085.)

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; BerkeleyRep.org or 510-647-2949)

Rose — "I am eighty years old," begins the woman gingerly taking a seat on a hard wooden bench. "I find that un-for-giv-able." And then she's off on a sometimes merry, sometimes grim travelogue of those eighty years, from her childhood in a muddy Ukrainian shtetl through to her surprising success as a Miami Beach hotelier, with stops in Warsaw, the refugee ship Exodus 1947, a Jewish settlement on the West Bank, and Atlantic City for good measure. The title character, played by the splendid Naomi Newman, is a charmer who will be instantly recognizable to anyone with an elderly Jewish auntie. She's got all the Catskills comedian moves, noting of Jews that "if ever a people weren't built for bathing suits, it was ours." Playful and raunchy, she also captures the great dilemma plaguing Jews all over the world when she describes the violence marring the dream of Israel: "We are supposed to be better than that. We are supposed to carry a moral light into the world." Author Martin Sherman is using one woman to tell several stories about the experience of Eastern European Jews in the 20th century, and the densely written result is both unflinching and tender. — L.D. (Through February 25 at the Ashby Stage; ATJT.com or 800-838-3006.)

Shopping for God — Erica Lann-Clark's one-woman show covers a lot of territory, from her narrow escape from the Holocaust fleeing Vienna as a small child to youthful rebellion from her atheist Jewish parents by flirting with every spiritual system from Catholicism to Castaneda. Directed by David Ford, the meandering and often humorous show feels as if it still has yet to find its structure, and Lann-Clark's broad and boisterous delivery is sometimes disproportionate to the material — but in an endearing way, like a larger-than-life relative. A phone-call gimmick and some of the direct address to God the mother (not Goddess, because she finds the suffix demeaning) doesn't really work, but there's some priceless material here about spiritual quests, therapy, catharsis, and reconciliation that should resonate with just about anyone. — S.H. (Through March 3 at the Marsh Berkeley; TheMarsh.org or 800-838-3006.)

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; CCCT.org or 510-524-9132.)

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