.Beyond the Fourth Wall

Our critics review local theater productions.

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. — L.D. (Through March 5 at the Berkeley Rep; BerkeleyRep.org or 510-647-2949.)

Around the World in Eighty Days — Having enjoyed a long run in Sacramento, Mark Brown’s adaptation of the Jules Verne classic makes its local debut in this handsome Center REP production directed by newly anointed artistic director Michael Butler. Kelly Tighe’s set is a knockout, with bare suggestions of latitude and longitude lines surrounding a rotating disc on the floor ringed by clockface numbers that double as all-purpose props throughout the show. The comedy is broad and often downright silly, with outrageous accents, random celebrity impressions, and enough running jokes that some are bound to work. — S.H. (Through March 4 at the Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts; DLRCA.org or 925-943-7469.)

The Master Builder — A gem of elegant interpersonal warfare, Henrik Ibsen’s The Master Builder explores both the price of success and the playwright’s interest in abnormal psychology. Although just as emotionally sharp as anything else in his quiver, The Master Builder also is accessible and darkly humorous. Ibsen could have written the architect Halvard Solness for the subtly regal James Carpenter, who heads up a solid cast under the direction of Barbara Oliver. At the height of his career, Halvard fears that he is to be consumed by the younger generation. It’s a fear made more real by the news that his young draftsman Ragnar would like to start designing some buildings himself. Incapable of allowing such a thing, Halvard schemes to keep the younger man quiet by manipulating Ragnar’s fiancée. The play is a tense and beautifully crafted story of a powerful man’s downfall, and this production a stunning, magnetic interpretation. — L.D. (Through March 5 at the Aurora; AuroraTheatre.org or 510-843-4822.)

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. Oleanna itself not this admirably taut production — could have been more effective and more subtle. — 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, Claire Nail subtly chilling as the overbearing Nurse Ratched, and John Hale mostly stolid as the apparently catatonic Chief Bromden. Colin Babcock’s bare psych-ward set is particularly effective. — 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. Director Renee Echavez could stand to pick up the pace a bit, but on the whole it’s a charming and gently funny show. — S.H. (Through February 25 at Masquers Playhouse; Masquers.org or 510-232-4031.)

Strange Travel Suggestions — Travelogue author Jeff Greenwald has been all around the world, and he could tell you some stories. That’s just what he’s doing in this evening of off-the-cuff tales from his travels, the subject of which is determined by audience volunteers’ spins of an elaborately painted Wheel of Fortune so that each night is a different show altogether. His stories are funny, haunting, and suffused with spirituality, and, like any good raconteur’s, have been told often enough to have become smooth and polished. — S.H. (Through March 3 at the Marsh Berkeley; TheMarsh.org or 415-826-5750.)

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 mouthsd. 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. 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 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. 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.)


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