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. (Through July 15 at the Ashby Stage; or 415-439-2456.)

Bird in the Hand — Not only is Anne Galjour's play about birdwatching, a niche interest in itself, but the experience itself is a lot like birdwatching as well. Glimpses are offered of characters hopping around in their yards and eventually interacting with others of their own species, just to give them something to do. Galjour and Joel Mullennix are Ruth and Ralph, a prim birder searching for California quail and a scavenging hippie who keeps pigeons. They also play their next-door neighbors Charmaine and Roman, a meek New Orleans refugee and her dominating, fitness-obsessed boyfriend. Meanwhile, Jan Zvaifler's brusque and bitter Marian, abandoned by her birder husband, saves an injured sparrow with her officious next-door neighbor Frank (Terry Lamb). Each character is associated with a particular bird, and the script is packed with avian metaphors. But unlike in Galjour's acclaimed bayou monologues, here her multiple characters simply feel adrift in search of a plot to pursue. (Through July 29 at the Berkeley City Club; or 510-558-1381.)

Bosoms and Neglect — John Guare's stilted dialogue works beautifully as class commentary in 1990's Six Degrees of Separation, but 1979's Bosoms and Neglect is just overwritten. Mildly amusing stuff about analysis subjects' superiority to therapy patients is bogged down with expository dialogue as Scooper and Deirdre talk about their mutual shrink and reminisce about their meeting mere minutes ago. There's a grating plaintive lilt to Cassidy Brown's thick New York accent (reminiscent of cartoon cougar Snagglepuss) as hyperactive Scooper. Beth Wilmurt's deliberately casual air of assuredness as Deirdre gradually crumbles as her nervous fidgeting escalates. Joan Mankin is a breath of fresh air in the second act as Scooper's blind mother Henny, with her mile-a-minute chatter. Despite some fine performances and the valiant efforts of director Joy Carlin to keep things moving, neither can save a deeply troubled play that's ultimately beyond therapy. (Through July 22 at the Aurora Theatre; or 510-843-4822.)

Impact Briefs 8: Sinfully Delicious — Impact's annual assemblages of short plays tend to be basically an evening of sketch comedy. The five sin-themed briefs seem particularly skimpy this year, but they're fleshed out with four burlesque dance numbers, plus an opening bit with audience answers about the last sinful thing they did. It's pretty lightweight stuff but has its moments, particularly Lia Romeo's priceless Hot Line, in which a lovelorn cheerleader (a chirpy Elissa Dunn) is dicked around by a pathological liar working a suicide hotline, played with a winning smirk by Steve Budd. Meandering but with a nice payoff, Steve's Inferno by David Kongstvedt sees a young hipster (Jon Lutz) get off the subway at the wrong stop and have to tour a downsized Hell guided by Leon Goertzen as a very fey demon. Four burlesque dancers fill out the program enchantingly with sin-themed numbers, whether they're nuns doing chair dances or angels and devils facing off in lingerie. (Through July 21 at La Val's Subterranean; or 510-464-4468.)


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