On Stage

Our critics weigh in on local theater.

For 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.”

Arabian Night — White Germany is sometimes accused of exoticizing nonwhite cultures, which makes German playwright Roland Schimmelpfennig’s Arabian Night interesting, along with the play’s combination of dialogue and internal monologue; the way its five characters exist doggedly within their own skins; and the tension from the opening line that never lets up. It’s a fascinating text, and one long inheld breath as performed by the Shotgun Players: Franziska Dehke dreams on the couch of a dreary apartment in a block of similarly dreary apartments on a humid Berlin evening. Men buzz around her, all doomed by a curse that may — or may not — have been placed on her by a Turkish potentate’s favorite wife. Her roommate Fatima runs up and down the stairs. That’s the outline, but the story swirls like water through time, space, and fable. Arabian Night is one of those rare plays with the power to keep surprising. Although the stories within seem familiar and certain things seem destined to happen, it’s impossible to see how they could. Which is a good thing, especially in this audacious, funny, and occasionally brutal production. — L.D. (Through July 3 at Ashby Playhouse; 510-841-6500 or ShotgunPlayers.org)

Baby — It comes down to this: This 1984 multiple Tony nominee is a musical about the miracle of childbirth, and if that by itself sounds perfectly darling, you may enjoy it. Sybille Pearson’s book is a simple sketch about three couples’ giddy reactions to the Big News: clueless college students, thirtysomething gym teachers struggling with infertility, and astonished fortysomething empty-nesters. — S.H. (Through June 25; DLRCA.org or 925-943-7469.)

Honour — She’s young, sexy, and smart; he’s older, accomplished, and deeply rooted in a marriage of thirty-some years. Honour knows that it’s a cliché, from the familiar story of a man in midlife leaving his wife for a younger woman because the newcomer “makes him feel alive again” to its white, upper-middle-class milieu. Australian playwright Joanna Murray-Smith knew her plot was as old as infidelity itself, but decided that in Honour, she would address the cliché head-on by trying to present each character as sympathetically as possible. Did she succeed? The Berkeley Rep production helmed by Tony Taccone is a mixed bag. — L.D. (Through July 3; BerkeleyRep.org or 510-647-2949.)

Let’s Go to the Movies Redux — New Town Hall artistic director Kevin T. Morales’ makeshift musical about a guy who has to write a musical (and who in turn writes a musical about a guy who writes a musical) is a hilarious satire of community theater that builds beautifully on itself, the second act a marvelously over-the-top parody of the first. — S.H. (Through July 2 at Town Hall Theatre and August 4-14 at the Ashby Stage; THTC.org or 925-283-1557.)

Othello — CalShakes’ Othello puts a man in the lead role, something we haven’t seen much of lately. But director Sean Daniels’ modernized version of the classic has its own character twists. Bruce McKenzie’s Iago seethes with a fury that goes beyond the calculated gamesmanship of some Iagos, the sly charm of others. It doesn’t matter how Othello wronged him — this Iago is simply insane, which changes the play tremendously. He makes for a striking contrast with Billy Eugene Jones’ urbane Othello, who is simultaneously slick and genuine, so affable that his transition from rationality to apoplexy seems unusually abrupt, but Jones handles it convincingly by having his character keep trying to overcome his misgivings about Desdemona. Sarah Grace Wilson is a bright Desdemona, kind and strong in the moments where she defies her father and then her husband’s mysterious rage. There’s a moment after her slaying, when Othello walks around holding her lifeless body, that is note-perfect. Finally, T. Edward Webster brings to life a Roderigo of rare significance, with too much energy, too few brains, and a desire for Desdemona that is all the more pitiful; one just wants the poor boy to go home before anything bad happens to him. — L.D. (Through July 3 at the Bruns Memorial Amphitheatre; 510-548-9666 or CalShakes.org)

Ruthless! The Musical — Nothing says summer more than camp, and camp is one thing this showbiz musical dishes out in spades. Fortunately, devilish wit and Broadway-pastiche showstoppers are also in plentiful supply. With the inevitable (but still funny) drag auntie and frequent nods to The Bad Seed and All About Eve, Joel Paley and Marvin Laird’s comedy about a murderous moppet who will do anything to score the lead in the school play is given a delightfully lively staging in this Point Richmond community theater production. — S.H. (Through July 23 at Masquers Playhouse; Masquers.org or 510-232-3888)

The Taming of the Shrew — Let’s face it: Shakespeare’s subjugation-of-women storyline? Not funny. Rather than undermine it by suggesting shrewish Kate is just playing along, Tom Bentley’s Subterranean Shakespeare production uses a Promise Keepers setting to say that yes, her will is crushed, and no, that’s not funny. This reimagining doesn’t enrich the story so much as work against it, so it’s hard to get past the cynical deceit even in the young-lovers subplot. The performances are animated and articulate, but cold and creepy. — S.H. (Through June 24 at Berkeley Art Center; 510-276-3871.)

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