What's Happening in East Bay Theater 

Our critics weigh in on local theater.

9 Parts of Desire -- A Bedouin who has divorced two husbands, a gravel-voiced Iraqi expat in London drinking Scotch and explaining that Saddam had to go, an Iraqi-American glued to the television looking for family members and wondering if yoga will lessen her terrible despair. This is the Gulf War we haven't seen. The Iraqi-American writer Heather Raffo based her solo show on ten years of interviews with Iraqi women, weaving together stories that as likely to address love as conflict. Some characters are more fully realized than others. The mourner who opens the show remains a cipher and is difficult to distinguish from the widow Umm Gheda, while Layal is virtually laid bare. Amal is a charming respite from mourning and explosions, grasping her bosom as she explains that nursing someone else's child makes them "brothers and sisters in the milk" with one's own. Hooda, the cynical Londoner, is the most political of the lot. She and the teenager Samura best capture the complexity of the Iraqi situation through their ambivalence. We see exactly how -- with a frightening fundamentalism on the rise -- women have less freedom than they did before the liberation of Iraq. The descriptions of atrocities committed under Saddam's regime rival anything that has happened since; from rape to the incineration of people hiding in a bomb shelter, Raffo's script is pitiless. And yet this is also one of her work's great strengths, this fearlessness, this determination to bring the evil out of the shadows and watch it squirm. -- L.D. (Through March 5 at the Berkeley Rep; BerkeleyRep.org or 510-647-2949.)

Oleanna -- When it first opened in 1992, David Mamet's Oleanna kicked up a tremendous fuss. He'd tackled themes of gender, power, and political correctness, and viewers and critics were evenly split on whether he'd done so brilliantly or boorishly. Mamet told the story of a young student approaching her professor for help, and then eventually bringing him down with her allegations of abuse and impropriety. It's a gutsy piece of work for Playhouse West, and the current production illustrates how some questions -- both those raised by the text, and larger ones about the audience's prejudices -- still have not been answered satisfactorily. Criticism that Oleanna is antiwoman is oversimplified. Mamet does address male privilege and the way a man can get lost in it. That said, Oleanna itself -- not this admirably taut production -- could have been more effective and more subtle. Mamet could have made Carol less of a stalking horse to cover his point about political correctness. Which isn't surprising -- Mamet just doesn't write women who sound real. At least at Playhouse West the questions -- and impact -- are. -- L.D. (Through February 18 at the Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts; PlayhouseWest.org or 925-943-7469.)

One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest -- Dale Wasserman's 1963 stage adaptation of the Ken Kesey novel is more of an ensemble piece than the 1975 Jack Nicholson flick, and that's nicely reflected in Daren A.C. Carollo's staging. Though the ward aides are just cartoon goons, the cast by and large displays a fine array of maniacal behavior as the inmates. The principals are solid: Mark Manske a live wire as ward interloper-cum-savior R.P. McMurphy, Heidi Forssell subtly chilling as the overbearing Nurse Ratched, and John Hale mostly stolid as the apparently catatonic Chief Bromden (though the play's device of using him as a wide-eyed quasimystical narrator wears thin). Colin Babcock's bare psych-ward set is particularly effective in that, aside from the impressionistic view through the barred windows, it doesn't even look like a set because it's so well integrated into the space. -- S.H. (Through February 25 at Contra Costa Civic Theatre; CCCT.org or 510-524-6654.)

Over the River and Through the Woods -- "Coots! What's the matter with coots today?" That's what callow Nick (Dillon Siedentopf) would be singing if Joe DiPietro's sentimental comedy were a musical. As is, all Nick can do is glower and kvetch as his full set of Italian-American grandparents smother him with affection: boisterous New Jersey natives on his father's side (strong performances by David Lee and Dory Ehrlich) and quaint immigrant maternal grandparents with Chico Marx accents on the other. (Marian Simpson's accent as grandma Aida would sound Russian were it not for the "-a" tacked onto each word.) Director Renee Echavez could stand to pick up the pace a bit, as the actors give each other's lines a wide berth, but on the whole it's a charming and gently funny show. David Wilkerson's tasteful New Jersey living room set gives a strong sense of what all this talk about home really means. -- S.H. (Through February 25 at Masquers Playhouse; Masquers.org or 510-232-4031.)

Splinters ... and Other F-Words -- Snowflakes spin and roses bloom as the Ragged Wing Ensemble presents an ambitious if cluttered reinterpretation of Hans Christian Andersen's story "The Snow Queen." Written and directed by ensemble member Andrea Hart, it's a provocative show about anger and forgiveness using stylized movement, text, and song to tell the story of a young woman estranged from her father. In Andersen's 1845 original, a demon's mirror breaks, scattering particles all over the world that make people see things as the exact opposite of what they are. Playmates Kai and Gerda are separated when bits of this mirror enter Kai's eye and heart, opening him to seduction by the glittering Snow Queen. She whisks him away to her palace, and Gerda sets out in pursuit. In Splinters, we still have a Snow Queen (called "The Objective Observer" and played by Anna Shneiderman), and little Gerda still goes on her heroic journey. But we also have the story of a man who leaves his wife and children, and of the daughter who must find a way to make peace with him while juggling all the disappointments of coming to adulthood. As a meditation on growing up without becoming bitter and twisted, Splinters is sometimes quite beautiful. As a production, it's at least ten, maybe fifteen minutes too long. Ragged Wing deserves credit for building something this complex for its second outing. But the material hasn't been polished over time, and Splinters needs a little more broken off to let the story shine more clearly. -- L.D. (Through February 11 at the Northbrae Community Church; RaggedWing.org or 800-836-3006.)

Twelfth Night -- Shakespeare's comedies are always a web of confusion, but Actors Ensemble's production of one of his most sturdy plays is further complicated by rushed delivery that makes the dialogue hard to follow and leaves no time for characters to concoct the thoughts they're expressing. Combined with several principal actors' tics of looking around wide-eyed, it gives the impression that they're utterly bewildered by the words coming out of their mouths, as though possessed. Between the parsing problems and the fact that most of the actors play two roles, a familiarity with the play would help you discern that heroine Viola (Wendy Welch) is still the same character when she comes out dressed as a man. A few supporting performances, such as Norman Macleod as Sir Toby Belch, Sonya Kreiden-Karaim as Countess Olivia, and director Stanley Spenger as snobby steward Malvolio, stand out for having some relation to the material. -- S.H. (Through February 18 at Live Oak Theatre; AEofBerkeley.org or 510-649-5999.)

Walkin' Talkin' Bill Hawkins -- W. Allen Taylor's one-man show about searching for the father he never knew, the first black disc jockey in Cleveland, shows considerable polish, funny and poignant in all the right places. Directed by Gloria Weinstock from an earlier version helmed by Ellen Sebastian Chang, the production beautifully incorporates old R&B and jazz hits as well as slides and radio clips of father and son. Though Taylor's jive-talking, fictional DJ alter ego the Kid grates a bit, the way he embodies various people on his journey is particularly impressive, from himself as a young boy to various acquaintances of his father's to the mother who withheld his father's identity until it was too late to know him. -- S.H. (Through March 19 at the Marsh Berkeley; TheMarsh.org or 800-838-3006.)

Wit -- Margaret Edson's Pulitzer Prize-winning (and only) play is challenging stuff, about a Donne scholar undergoing harrowing experimental treatments for ovarian cancer. Despite its harrowing subject, the play is often very funny and almost pathologically smart, its heroine deconstructing doctors' language and even the play she's in, but it also packs an emotional wallop without indulging in cheap sentiment. And Town Hall Theatre Company of Lafayette nails it in this excellent production directed by Jake Witlen, fresh from the Actors Theatre of Louisville. Everything we'll later learn about the tough, brilliant professor of literature is visible and audible in Scarlett Hepworth's remarkable performance from the start, without any hint of caricature. The able supporting cast including several Town Hall regulars manages to carry off the humor even in a mortifying pelvic exam. This isn't just good community theater; it's a flat-out triumph and a must-see. -- S.H. (Through February 19 at Town Hall Theatre; THTC.org or 925-283-1557.)

Wrong Turn at Lungfish -- In the confines of a hospital room, a blind and curmudgeonly college professor wants only to muse upon his impending death. If only Anita, the sassy young Brooklyn girl who comes to read to him, would stop distracting him with her shenanigans. This comedy by Danville's Role Players Ensemble tries to mine the differences between the two characters for laughs: While the professor is looking for answers in the work of Baudelaire, Anita recites anecdotes from The Honeymooners. But ultimately, the attempt to probe deep, philosophical questions -- such as why we're here on Earth and where to find solace at the end of life -- is as simplistic and insufferable as a suburban fifteen-year-old spouting existentialism. -- E.S. (Through February 11 at the Danville Village Theatre; 925-314-3463.)


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