Beyond the Fourth Wall 

Our critics review local theater productions.

Anna Bella Eema— Perched on three chairs and making animal sounds and noises with various objects, Julie Kurtz, Danielle Levin, and Cassie Beck are spellbinding. Irene (Beck), who never leaves her mobile home, tells about the day her daughter Anna Bella (Levin) made a girl named Anna Bella Eema (Kurtz) out of mud. The performances are spellbinding and inextricably interlaced, the others singing or growling along as one narrates. Lisa D'Amour's language is exquisite — poetic and funny, mythic and down-to-earth at the same time. As drenched as the play is in fairy-tale tropes, its abandoned trailer-park setting makes the flights of fancy seem necessary and completely real. This West Coast premiere is also a fitting farewell to Crowded Fire founder Rebecca Novick, who in ten years as artistic director has been committed to presenting challenging new work. Her staging of Anna Bella Eema demonstrates how rewarding those challenges can be. (Through July 1 at Traveling Jewish Theatre and July 5-15 at the Ashby Stage; or 415-439-2456.)

Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist — Though constructed almost entirely out of Dickens' language, Neil Bartlett's script omits many characters, simplifies the plot, and adds foreshadowing to make long-buried revelations immediately obvious in his music-hall-inspired grotesquery. Rae Smith's ingenious set is a dingy box with walls and ceiling covered in smudges and footprints that obscure myriad trapdoors and slots. Gerard McBurney's suspenseful music uses nearly omitted pickpockets on fiddle, serpent, and hurdy-gurdy, and introductory passages are sung eerily a cappella. Carson Elrod makes a sympathetic narrator, but his Artful Dodger clowns broadly at the expense of comprehensibility. Ned Eisenberg slips awkwardly between Cockney and Yiddish accents as Fagin, gesturing magically to dim lights to put people to sleep. It's the supporting cast that stands out, such as Remo Airaldi as puffed-up beadle Mr. Bumble and Gregory Derelian's menacing Bill Sykes. When the story is only the unfortunate events an orphan boy endures, the fewer twists there are, the less there is to Twist. (Through June 24 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre; or 510-647-2949.)

Let's Go to Casablanca — In writer-director Kevin T. Morales' sequel to his 2004 hit Let's Go to the Movies, a musical revue of cinematic songs turned metafictional satire of community theater, his thinly fictional Town Square company has demanded a sequel to its own Let's Go show, this time based on Casablanca. Although not as fast-paced as the first installment, with the movie rehash dragging things down, it's packed with in-jokes poking fun at the theater and Morales' own track record as artistic director. Much of the fun lies in what a terrible idea it is. Inept floozy Kitty (the sharply comic D'Arcy Erokan) is cast as Renault because there are more actresses than parts, and Rick and Ilsa sing "(I've Had) The Time of My Life." Joel Roster brings his own brand of winning smarm to hammy Trey, constantly showing off his "Townie" award. (Through June 23 at Town Hall Theatre Company; or 925-283-1557.)

Play It Again, Sam — This slight endeavor in which nebbish Allan is haunted by Bogart giving him hard-boiled dating advice is basically just an angsty monologue occasionally interrupted by fantasy visitations, bad dates, and a convenient affair even more conveniently resolved. It's far from Woody Allen's best work, and Stephen Murphree's Act Now! production is awkwardly paced, so that the only way to tell overwrought daydreams from cornball reality is the lighting. Jerry Motta's Bogart impression is pretty good, and Ben Ortega has a keen sense of comic neurosis as Allan. He also mimics the playwright's delivery, so if you've ever wondered what Woody Allen would sound like with a Mexican accent, this is your chance to find out. Terry Darcy D'Emidio has folksy charm as gal pal Linda, although they have zero chemistry, and John Hale makes a decent workaholic Dick. (Through June 23 at the Lesher Center for the Arts; or 925-943-7469.)

Richard III — The hunchbacked duke of Gloucester who schemes and murders his way to the throne is easily among Shakespeare's most perversely delightful villains, but in Mark Rucker's staging the rascally Richard is like Bugs Bunny in a sea of Fudds, making it hard to take his dastardly deeds seriously. Reg Rogers' Richard is a hipster cutie with artfully rumpled hair and a conspiratorially sardonic air, surrounded by howling melodrama pitched so high that it undermines both the text and performances of usually reliable actors. A few emerge unscathed, especially James Carpenter, who packs so much power into one scene as the sickly king that it's a shame the play isn't called Edward IV. Strains of Kay Starr's "Wheel of Fortune" and a bright flash from a bank of lights accompanies each of the murders, a flippant choice that makes the climactic battle feel like a game show. (Through June 24 at the Bruns Amphitheater; or 510-548-9666.)


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