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Stage Struck

The East Bay theater scene hits the high notes


Theater in the East Bay may have started with community groups that just want to put on a show. But these days, we’ve got innovative productions that can easily go toe-to-toe with their counterparts across the Bay and in other big cities across the country. The East Bay’s 100 or so companies (out of the Bay Area’s more than 400) stage everything from slaphappy comedies to musical extravaganzas to edgy dramas created by some of our nation’s finest actors, directors, and designers. Another fall theater season is just getting under way. Here are the shows you absolutely don’t want to miss.

Courtesy of Playhouse West

The music, personal trials, and tragic early deaths of popular entertainers such as John Lennon and Janis Joplin have inspired a whole genre of stage musicals. Center Repertory Company takes on the life of a country music legend with Hank Williams: Lost Highway (September 6–October 6). Williams penned 36 country-western Top 10 hits, with many—like “Hey Good Lookin’,” “Jambalaya,” and “Your Cheatin’ Heart”—crossing over to pop charts. The songs themselves are your entrée to his story, as presented by the Lesher’s resident theater company. Lesher Center for the Arts, 1601 Civic Dr., Walnut Creek, (925) 943-7469, www.lesherartscenter.org.

Courtesy of Aurora Theater Company

For sheer ambition, we credit the Willows Theatre for bringing to the burbs the Pulitzer Prize–winning epic The Kentucky Cycle (Parts 1 & 2) (August 27–October 28). Of course, the Willows is beloved for its unique ability to mount blockbuster-size works in an intimate, 210-seat house. Robert Schenkkan’s Kentucky Cycle portrays six generations of two pioneer families from 1775 to 1975. In the process, the drama “tells the story of America,” says Willows managing director Andrew Holtz. Presented in two consecutive performances, the six-hour saga examines the myths that created the country we are today. Willows Theatre, 1975 Diamond Blvd., Concord, (925) 798-1300, www.willows theatre.org.

On a smaller scale, but also ambitious, is Playhouse West’s Defiance (October 25–November 25), a new work by John Patrick Shanley, who won a Pulitzer Prize for Doubt. Lois Grandi’s excellent small house returns to its newly renovated space in downtown Walnut Creek, after a stint at the Lesher Center. Artistic director Grandi has also brought on New York theater artist Adam Fitzgerald as managing artistic director. He directs Defiance, which is set on a Marine base in North Carolina in 1971 and depicts a collision course over race, women, and the high cost of doing the right thing.
Playhouse West, 1345 Locust St., Walnut Creek, (925) 942-0300, www.playhousewest.org.

Berkeley Repertory Theatre, one of the nation’s finest regional theaters, is celebrating its 40th season with innovative productions by two Chicago-based Tony Award–winning writers and directors. After the Quake (October 12–November 25) is Frank Galati’s love-tinged adaptation of short stories by one of Japan’s greatest living authors, Haruki Murakami. Mary Zimmerman, a favorite among Berkeley Rep audiences, returns with the West Coast premiere of Argonautika (November 2–December 16), her imaginative take on the myth of Jason and the Argonauts and their quest for the Golden Fleece.
Lesser known, but equally inventive, is Berkeley Rep neighbor Aurora Theatre Company. Always provocative, Aurora doesn’t disappoint with Hysteria (August 24–September 30), which imagines the last days of Sigmund Freud as he encounters, among others, a young woman who can’t keep her clothes on and surrealist Salvador Dalí. The New York Times called Hysteria “an exuberant surprise.” Sex (November 2–December 9), by Mae West (yes, that Mae West), premiered on Broadway in 1926 and was closed down by the police; West was convicted of obscenity, then went on to become one of the funniest, and most notorious, film icons of the 20th century.
Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley, (510) 647-2949, ww.berkeleyrep.org.
Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison St. Berkeley, (510) 843-4822, www.auroratheatre.org.

We love the Bard and never miss a chance to see California Shakespeare Theater’s unique renderings of the master. Grab your parka—in case it’s one of those fog-shrouded nights in the Orinda hills—to catch Cal Shakes’s last play of the season, the wrenching King Lear (September 19–October 14). Prepare to be heartbroken when the aging monarch descends into madness, as his family and country are destroyed by ambition and jealousy.

The eighth annual Eugene O’Neill Festival (September 21–23) features America’s most honored playwright in Danville, where he wrote his final and most memorable plays: The Iceman Cometh, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, and A Moon for the Misbegotten. The festival includes a screening of the 1973 film version of The Iceman Cometh, a discussion with O’Neill scholars, and a reading of “Tomorrow,” O’Neill’s only published short story. A dinner served alfresco at the O’Neill estate, Tao House (Saturday, September 22), is limited to 100 and features a musical performance.

Courtesy of California Shakespeare Theater

Bruns Amphitheater, 100 Gateway Blvd., Orinda, (510) 548-9666, www.calshakes.org.
Tao House and Danville Town Hall, (925) 820-1818, www.eugeneoneill.org.

If you grew up on the great American songbook, check out these musicals, performed by Contra Costa Musical Theatre and Diablo Light Opera Company at the Lesher Center for the Arts. CCMT and DLOC are two East Bay powerhouses that perennially pack ’em in. DLOC is mounting its half-million–dollar production of Peter Pan (August 31–September 29), replete with spectacular flying sequences, comedy, and adventure for the whole family. The enchantment continues with CCMT’s version of the great American masterpiece Fiddler on the Roof (October 5–November 4), which features some of the richest music ever produced for the stage (“Tradition,” “Sunrise, Sunset,” “If I Were a Rich Man”).
Lesher Center for the Arts, 1601 Civic Dr., Walnut Creek, (925) 943-7469, www.lesherartscenter.org.

Shakespeare’s Associates, best known for summer productions at Livermore’s Retzlaff vineyard, will celebrate the opening of the new Livermore Valley Performing Arts Center with a performance of All the World’s a Stage: The Bard, Baritones, and Bassoons (October 13), a collaboration with Livermore Valley Opera and the Amador Valley Symphony. The 500-seat theater launches October 1; two weeks of opening festivities include a performance by Broadway star Bernadette Peters (Saturday, October 6).
Livermore Valley Performing Arts Center, between First Street and Railroad and North Livermore avenues, downtown Livermore, (925) 373-6100, www.livermoreshakes.org and www.livermoreperformingarts.org.

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