Capsule Reviews

Our critics weigh in on local theater.

For a complete, up-to-date East Bay Theater listings, look under “Billboard” on the home page for the “Select Category” pulldown, then select “Theater & Performing Arts.”

Polk County — The play starts with a beating and ends with a wedding. In between, it’s stuffed with more voodoo, sass, and authentic blues than a fruitcake has chewy bits. It must be from Zora Neale Hurston, the unapologetic Roman candle of the Harlem Renaissance. As funny, brash, and tough as the writer herself, it’s a musical tribute to the land and people that produced the blues. Polk County languished, at first in the US Copyright Office and then the Library of Congress, until a retiree and Hurstonphile named John Wayne found it in 1997. It merrily introduces audiences to the unforgettable characters and songs Hurston collected as a folklorist trawling the Depression-era South; a land of sawmills and turpentine stills and jooks, knife-wielding women and dreaming men. The Rep production captures all that vivid texture in a script dusted off by director Kyle Donnelly and dramaturge Cathy Madison, acted by a big, juicy cast largely imported from New York, and sung to music arranged by Chic Street Man. The singing is flawlessly intertwined with the story, the music rousing, and the set creates an intimate sense of place. — L.D. (Through January 9; or 510-647-2949.)

Travesties — It’s a little hard to explain Travesties, and the Shotgun Players don’t really try, preferring instead to ride the manic energy of Tom Stoppard’s mix of Dada, literary theory, and the history of the Russian revolution. Stoppard takes three men who were in Zurich at the same time — Dadaist Tristan Tzara, author James Joyce, and revolutionary Vladimir Lenin — and links them together through the dodgy memory of a fourth expatriate, the British consular agent Henry Carr. Oh, and then Stoppard presses the Travesties mix into a mold shaped roughly like Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. Which is stunningly hilarious if you know Earnest, and probably completely mystifying if you don’t. While it might also help to read Joyce’s Ulysses and brush up on your Das Kapital, knowing Wilde’s sly comedy of manners and class will give you the most bang for the buck here. A little Gilbert and Sullivan wouldn’t hurt either. In short, Travesties is pretty meta. Stoppard has been accused of being all head and no heart, and this is a very cerebral work, but in director Sabrina Klein’s sure hands it’s also a great deal of fun that would reward repeated viewing. Stoppard likes to use humor to explore deeper questions, and spends much of Travesties pondering war, art, self-representation, and the intersections between them. — L.D. (Through Jan. 9 at the Ashby Stage; or 510-841-6500.)

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