Beyond the Fourth Wall

Our critics review local theater productions.

Incorruptible — There aren’t a lot of plays that kick off with comedy routines about a dead Jew in a sack, and that’s definitely a good thing. After that, the only real surprise in Michael Hollinger’s farce about 13th-century monks digging up the church graveyard to pass off parishioners’ remains as holy relics is that it’s too lightweight even to be properly offensive. Jerry Motta amps up the wackiness both as director and as the venal Brother Martin in this Role Players Ensemble production; you’re not always sure why people are yelling, but there’s little danger of missing a punch line. — S.H. (Through February 10 at the Village Theatre; or 925-314-3400.)

The Pillowman — Martin McDonagh, an English-born Irishman influenced by Mamet and the Clash alike, has made his name as a dramatist for language as gory as it is wickedly funny. The story of Katurian, who is interrogated by the police because a series of grisly local murders look a lot like his twisted little tales, is a fable about big issues. Even though the material will be too much for anyone who can’t stand hearing about bad things happening to children (or evil parents, but at least no animals get it this time), director Les Waters proves once again that he can balance horror and humor. — L.D. (At the Berkeley Rep through March 11; or 510-647-2949)

Rose — “I am eighty years old,” begins the woman gingerly taking a seat on a hard wooden bench. “I find that un-for-giv-able.” And then she’s off on a sometimes merry, sometimes grim travelogue of those eighty years, from her childhood in a muddy Ukrainian shtetl through to her surprising success as a Miami Beach hotelier, with stops in Warsaw, the refugee ship Exodus 1947, a Jewish settlement on the West Bank, and Atlantic City for good measure. The title character, played by the splendid Naomi Newman, is a charmer who will be instantly recognizable to anyone with an elderly Jewish auntie. She’s got all the Catskills comedian moves, noting of Jews that “if ever a people weren’t built for bathing suits, it was ours.” Playful and raunchy, she also captures the great dilemma plaguing Jews all over the world when she describes the violence marring the dream of Israel: “We are supposed to be better than that. We are supposed to carry a moral light into the world.” Author Martin Sherman is using one woman to tell several stories about the experience of Eastern European Jews in the 20th century, and the densely written result is both unflinching and tender. — L.D. (February 15-25 at the Ashby Stage; or 800-838-3006.)

Strangers We Know Strangers We Know pairs “Mlle. Dias de Corta” by Mavis Gallant with “Which Is More Than I Can Say About Some People” by Lorrie Moore in an examination of how what we think we know about the people closest to us can be completely inaccurate. In the first, a lonely Parisian woman takes in a wild young would-be actress as a boarder, creating ripples through her family. In the second, a woman terrified because she needs to start speaking in public decides that going to Ireland to kiss the Blarney Stone will help — but bringing her mother may not. Both stories, performed here by a cast of six, deal with fish out of water — the boarder who wipes a jam-sticky finger on her skirt to the muted horror of her proper landlady, the mother and daughter lost somewhere in the vast greenness of Eire trying not to say the wrong things to the wrong people — in a gentle, almost wistful fashion. While something never quite jelled in the opening night performance of “Mlle. Dias de Corta,” “Which Is More Than I Can Say” is hilarious, due as much to the work of Sheila Balter and Patricia Silver as the tongue-tied Abby and her mother as to the text and director Joel Mullennix’ clever blocking. — L.D. (Through February 4 at the Julia Morgan Center; or 415-626-0453.)

Sweeney Todd — For the most part, the singing is much stronger than the acting in this community-theater production of Stephen Sondheim’s most macabre musical, but that’s far preferable to the reverse, given how superb the music is in this bloody tale of a barber’s clients being turned into meat pies, and how much information is conveyed while people are singing five different things at once. The large cast navigates admirably through the tricky material, though some songs are cut for length (happily not for content — there’s some racy stuff in here). Daren A.C. Carollo’s inventive staging is delightfully creepy, with the chorus closing in from all sides of the stripped-down set. — S.H. (Through March 3 at Contra Costa Civic Theatre; or 510-524-9132.)

The Tempest — Ragged Wing Ensemble’s first stab at Shakespeare (and third show overall) has some interesting innovations, most notably its thought-provoking treatment of much-maligned Caliban, portrayed compellingly by Christine Odera with some skillful mask work. Though what it signifies is sometimes mysterious, the choreography by Amy Sass (who doubles as a sullen, stony-faced Ariel) has a mystical air appropriate to the play. Other novelties in Keith C. Davis’ production, such as the video-projected backgrounds, new age music, and interminable repetition of a key speech during an added opening dumbshow, distract more than they add. — S.H. (Through February 17 at the Willard Metal Shop Theater; or 800-838-3006.)

Arsenic and Old Lace — There are plenty of reasons why community theaters aren’t going to lay Joseph Kesselring’s 1939 farce to rest anytime soon. It’s a sure crowd-pleaser, with two dotty old ladies fond of poisoning people, a guy who thinks he’s Teddy Roosevelt, opportunities for Boris Karloff and Peter Lorre impressions, pointed jokes about theater critics, and enough characters running around that it doesn’t matter much if some performances aren’t up to snuff. The madcap characters are lively enough in Betsy Bell Ringer’s nicely paced staging, grounded by Rob Bradshaw’s quaint living-room set and Loralee Windsor’s colorful ’40s costumes, though the young lovers are stiff and nonreactive enough to make one pine for Cary Grant’s over-the-top mugging in the film version. — S.H. (Through February 24 at Masquers Playhouse; 510-232-4031 or

Cartoon — Steven Yockey’s musical comedy about cartoon violence suits Berkeley’s Impact Theatre perfectly — it’s fast-paced, funny, and drenched in pop culture. Though it loses some steam at the end, there’s food for thought, and some surprisingly touching moments amid the pratfalls and bloodshed of this Saturday-morning insurgency against a ruthless dictatorship of repeated shticks and theme tunes. An animated cast creates a credible toontown in Mark Routhier’s bare-bones production, particularly Chris Yule as the soulful, world-weary marionette Winston Puppet and Marissa Keltie as the tempestuous and nonverbal Damsel. If you see only one play about cartoon characters killing each other this year, make it this one. — S.H. (Through March 10 at La Val’s Subterranean; 510-464-4468 or


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