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.)

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.)

Money and Run, Episode 4: Go Straight, No Chaser — Jimmy Jake (Run) and Robbie Jean (Money) are the most charismatic liquor-store robbers in all of Cudrup County, so beloved that they can barely get away after the register is emptied because they’re so busy signing autographs and kissing babies. When the law finally catches up with them, it’s hard for anyone to imagine them doing actual hard time, so another punishment is meted out in the fourth installment of Wayne Rawley’s spoofalicious Money and Run franchise, now playing at Impact. No, it doesn’t make any sense. Let go of that expectation, or indeed any desire for serious theatah, and just let the Bon Jovi wash over you as Rawley’s homage to every incomprehensible ’80s action television show trots out the sexy antihero couple, a scowling cop, a bitch-queen DA in perfectly square shoulder pads, and a game (if completely superfluous) narrator. Diehards who saw Impact do the first three episodes back in 2004 may be disappointed to see that there are no ninjas in this one, but director Desdemona Chiang does her best to soften the blow by offering up several other very funny people here. If you were disappointed by the Jessica Simpson Dukes of Hazzard, let Impact make it up to you here. — L.D. (Through May 27 at LaVal’s; or 510-464-4468.)

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.)

Richard III — Set at the end of Britain’s War of the Roses, Shakespeare’s Richard III opens on the various factions trying to bury the hatchet and move on, with both sides shaking hands and smiling through their teeth. This state of affairs does not suit the vile Richard, duke of Gloucester, who will kill or seduce whomever he must to gain the throne. One of Shakespeare’s most gleeful villains, Richard is bloodthirstier than Iago and untroubled by Macbeth’s scruples. But where the other two plays are notable for their trim, streamlined structures, this one is packed with kings, dukes, and queens who are alive, dead, or moving from one state to the other. Things can get confusing fast. This is a challenge Subterranean Shakespeare addresses unsatisfactorily in an otherwise elegant production at the Berkeley Art Center. It’s difficult to keep track of who’s who, especially since several of the actors play multiple characters. Costume and vocal variety, the first two things directors and actors can do to keep characters distinct, are largely absent. That said, it’s stronger overall than the run of SubShakes’ work. This cast is more evenly matched than those of some of the company’s other shows, and there is a clear directorial vision evident. But relentlessly grim and atmospheric, this one is for people who believe that palace intrigue is as much hell as war is. — L.D. (Through May 20 at the Berkeley Art Center; 510-276-3871.)

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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