Beyond The Fourth Wall

Our critics review local theater productions.

Animal Crackers— Like The Cocoanuts before it, the second Marx Brothers movie was originally a stage show, so performing it as a play really isn’t so strange — if you’re the Marx Brothers. George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind’s script is funny but relies heavily on the brothers’ particular personae to pull it off, so actors wind up doing celebrity impersonations. David Bogdonoff’s staging starts slow but soon finds its footing as the zaniness escalates. Timothy Beagley could stand to pick up the pace as Captain Spaulding, because Groucho’s lines only work if they keep everyone off balance. Amy Nielson’s Harpo slapstick is hilarious, and Tom Reardon’s Chico Marx delivery is good though his nonstop footwork is distracting. — S.H. (Through May 20 at Contra Costa Civic Theatre; or 510-524-6654.)

Chrysalis— If a futuristic cosmetics company morphing customers into whatever they want has operatic potential, it’s only vaguely explored in this new opera by Clark Suprynowicz and John O’Keefe. Though mezzo-soprano Buffy Baggott is magnetic as she shifts from pantherlike striding to desperate crawling in a single marketing pitch, there’s no evolution from the one to the other: she’s confident because her product is brilliant, and tortured because it’s terrible, and both are taken as self-evident. Since such a big deal is made of how grotesque these transformations are, it would be helpful to have some visual indication of them. Even smiley faces on paper plates would be a start. It’s no coincidence that the most dramatically and musically effective moments involve a classic theme: a haunting subplot of our heroine being supplanted by her prefab double (Marnie Breckenridge, whose perfect soprano is especially chilling under the circumstances). Somehow the looking glass is just more operatic than the boardroom. — S.H. (Through April 30 at the Julia Morgan Theater; or 925-798-1300.)

Disney’s Beauty and the Beast — Now that Disney has opened the floodgates, productions of this Broadway musical are cropping up in high schools across the country. But Contra Costa Musical Theatre does it up right for its East Bay premiere, with impressive rotating sets, colorful costumes, and big production numbers with minimal choreography. Alan Menken and Howard Ashman’s memorable songs from the animated movie are supplemented with less memorable filler by Menken and Tim Rice that seem unaware that they’re filler. — S.H. (Through May 13 at the Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts; or 925-943-7469.)

The Glass Menagerie — Tennessee Williams probably didn’t intend for his Glass Menagerie to be taken as a gauzy, nostalgic look at a family lost in time. His journals and letters reveal discontent and struggle that wind through all of his characters and scenarios. Written while Williams was at MGM working on a Lana Turner vehicle, The Glass Menagerie follows the implosion of the Wingfield clan. Tom dreams out his days working in a shoe warehouse. Meanwhile his chatty mother hustles magazine subscriptions, trying to make enough money to get her reclusive daughter Laura trained in some lucrative skill. It’s easy to play these characters in soft focus, but in the robust and troubling Berkeley Rep production, director Les Waters and his actors don’t fall prey. Emily Donahoe’s Laura is fine as long as she can stay within the cushioned world she has created for herself and interact only with her family. Rita Moreno’s Amanda likewise is tough and clear-headed, the silliness of her thirty-year-old party dress aside. As Tom, Erik Lochtefeld is twitchy, slumped, shabby, and ultimately poetic. — L.D. (Through June 18 at the Berkeley Rep; or 510-647-2949.)

Relative Values — If the waning of the British aristocracy is a topic you’re keen on, this minor work by community-theater staple Noël Coward may be your cup of tea. Coward’s wry patter ought to be snappier in this community production staged by Robert Taylor (doing double duty as loquacious butler Crestwell), if not for drollery’s sake then because this trifle oughtn’t be nearly three hours long. There are some funny one-liners amid the class-anxious nonsense about a lord marrying a Hollywood starlet, but some of them fly under the radar in the low-key, vaguely-British-accented performances. — S.H. (Through May 6 at Masquers Playhouse; or 510-232-4031.)

Small Tragedy — How far will you go to protect something you care about — even if it means you have to live with a lie? That’s the question behind Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex. It’s also behind Craig Lucas’ Small Tragedy, the mordantly funny story of a group putting on what could be a truly ponderous version of the ancient play, down to the full-of-ominous-sucking-noises music. Six actors — a kid who has played all the spear carriers, a theater newcomer with a murky past, two bickering roommates, a married couple — tackle the story of a man doomed to kill his father, marry his mother, and live to regret both. At least, that’s the plan, but discipline breaks down early and the six have to find their level without killing each other. As this is happening, a larger story about blindness, both willful and not, is being spun out. This West Coast premiere is a sizzling kickoff for the Aurora’s Global Age Project. — L.D. (Through May 14 at the Aurora; or 510-843-4822.)

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