Beyond The Fourth Wall

Our critics review local theater productions.

1776 — A musical about the Continental Congress’ deliberations leading up to the Declaration of Independence sounds dreary if you hate freedom, and it’s greatly to writer Peter Stone’s credit that he managed to make it funny. It’s so much to his credit that the nursery-rhyme-simple songs by original conceiver Sherman Edwards often feel like wispy add-ons to make it a musical so it could play Broadway, where it won the 1969 Tony over Hair. By popular demand Willows managing director Andrew Holtz has revived the theater’s 2000 production, with Rick Williams returning as an excellently curmudgeonly John Adams, unpopular advocate of independence. And if it’s quite long at three-plus hours, they go by admirably quickly. Particularly affecting is Pat Sieler as loyalist holdout John Dickinson, the only “nay” voter not portrayed as a foppish buffoon. John Hetzler makes an amusing rascal of quipster Ben Franklin, and Noah James Butler is stolid as stone as Jefferson. — S.H. (Through July 2 at the Willows Theatre; or 925-798-1300.)

The Fantasticks — With community theater, it’s likely that much of the audience already has seen a given play: Artistic directors often choose their seasons with an eye to familiarity. But with The Fantasticks, a technically simple off-Broadway musical about two lovers, two fathers, a bandit, and a wall, it’s also likely that audience members have acted in it. Based on Edmond Rostand’s Les Romanesques (“The Romancers”), about two fathers who connive to match their children by pretending a feud and hiring a bandit to create a little drama, this Tom Jones/Harvey Schmidt version has singing, swordfighting, and broad physical humor. But where Rostand (who also wrote Cyrano de Bergerac) was trying to spread fantasy, Jones and Schmidt decided to take their story in a very different direction — as a gentle reminder that in the real world, you have to make less-heroic sacrifices for love, and there are no fairy-tale endings. Except maybe for a little show that outlasted its critics. Its lively charm has made it one of the most-performed high school and community theater musicals. In other words, if you’re staging this one, you’d better get it right, because the audience will be singing along. And the Masquers do get it right, if conservatively, with three musicians behind a scrim behind the actors and the choice to use the original script. Alex Shafer and Keith Jefferds are fun as the the scheming dads in plaids, although Jefferds as Hucklebee, Matt’s father, appears to have difficulty moving his head and neck independently of his shoulders, creating a sort of monolithic torso that gets distracting. He has the smile of a cheerful lesser demon, though, which serves well as he sings about how you have to manipulate your children. A veteran of the Lamplighters chorus, Shafer is looser and more naturalistic as Luisa’s dad Bellomy. — L.D. (At the Masquers Playhouse, Point Richmond, through July 22; or 510-232-4031.)

Faulty Intelligence — Roy Zimmerman’s evening of satirical songs might be more at home in a nightclub or campus quad than a theater, and mocking the right wing is obviously preaching to the choir in Berkeley, but Zimmerman does so with such charm and devilish wit that none of those caveats matter much. He takes on the PATRIOT Act, intelligent design, anti-gay-marriage hysteria, the War on Terror, English-only reactionaries, Dick Cheney, and Ann Coulter with his acoustic guitar, brief segueing patter, clever rhymes, and pliant meter. Particularly hilarious are an Elvis-like love song to the National Security Agency (“because you really listen”), a portrayal of “Jerry Falwell’s God” as a tedious party-crasher, and a sultry falsetto ode to abstinence. — S.H. (Through July 27 at the Marsh Berkeley; or 415-826-5750.)

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 July 2 at the Berkeley Rep; or 510-647-2949.)

The Tempest — Juliàn López-Morillas makes an eloquently melancholy Prospero, exiled duke turned sorcerer, in the San Francisco Shakespeare Festival’s free summer production of the bard’s swansong. But despite a faceless, omnipresent Blue Man Group of spirits that blends into the walls of Richard Ortenblad’s striking text-covered set, this is an oddly static Tempest, the castaways either milling around or running randomly willy-nilly to indicate comedy. Though the decision to have Prospero onstage for the whole play aptly indicates his omniscience, it also accentuates the impression of having nothing better to do. Director Kenneth Kelleher has the cast doing double duty to sometimes confusing and troubling effect, as when Prospero soothes Miranda (a high-strung Julia Motyka) to sleep and turns her into his fairy servant Ariel. It’s as though he has hypnotized and enslaved his own daughter. — S.H. (Through September 24 in area parks; or 415-558-0888.)


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