Capsule Reviews 

Our critics weigh in on local theater.

For complete, up-to-date East Bay theater listings, look under Billboard on the main page for the "Select Category" pulldown, then select "Theater & Performing Arts."

A Delicate Balance -- Edward Albee's 1966 play is a fascinating portrait of an unhappy but oh-so-civilized couple striving to carry on in spite of the howling void within and too many house guests. And Actors Ensemble does a fine job with it in Mikel Clifford's production, though the witty veneer of affable resignation comes off a bit more convincingly than the desperation that gradually leaks through. Michelle Delattre is magnetic as Agnes the judgmental matriarch, and Richard Aiello quietly keeps the peace and the cocktails coming as husband Tobias. Leticia Duarte Trattner is too petulant as daughter Julia, but Lane McKenna is a corker as Agnes' unrepentant lush of a sister, and David Fenerty and Maureen Coyne are nicely deadpan as friends who move in because a nameless terror prevents them from going home. -- S.H. (Through August 14 at Live Oak Theatre; 510-649-5999 or AEofBerkeley.org)

As You Like It -- Women playing traditionally male Shakespearean roles is what the Woman's Will theater company is all about. So a gender-bending comedy such as As You Like It, with the favorite Shakespearean device of a woman dressing up as a man, would appear to be right up the company's alley. It's a shame, then, that the most convincing performances happen to be those of women playing women. Many of the female actors play men with overly husky voices and burly swagger. Here, though, pretending to be a man is treated as though it were natural. -- S.H. (Through August 15 in Bay Area parks; 510-420-0813 or WomansWill.org)

The Boys Next Door -- The good news is that Tom Griffin's 1986 comedy about four mentally disabled roommates and the caretaker who is getting fed up with them is not nearly as treacly as many dramas on the same subject. The bad news is that it's just a series of comic sketches loosely strung together with fraying plot threads, easy plays for poignancy, and a device of addressing the audience that's almost never effective. Some of the performances fall short of the mark, but James Hiser is very funny as motormouth Arnold, Troy Johnson and Kate Christ are darling as a pair of giggling lovers, and Stephen Randolph has the play's most striking moment as the most severely impaired of the bunch, though the script calls upon him to break character in order to deliver it. -- S.H. (Through August 14 at Broadway West Theatre; 510-683-9218 or Broadway-West.com)

The Caucasian Chalk Circle -- Among Bertolt Brecht's more popular plays, The Caucasian Chalk Circle is many things at once. It's a farcical depiction of government corruption, an inspiring tale of perseverance during wartime, a blistering indictment of war profiteering by the ruling class, a Marxist parable about the right of property and who most deserves it. First and perhaps least, it's an adaptation of The Chalk Circle, a Chinese play from around AD 1300 in which a Solomon-like judge places a baby in a chalk-drawn circle and challenges the two women who claim to be its mother to an infant tug-of-war to determine custody. For all that, it makes for an excellent afternoon in the park. -- S.H. (Through August 29 at North Berkeley's John Hinkel Park; 510-841-6500 or ShotgunPlayers.org)

My Fair Lady -- Lerner and Loewe's musical adaptation of Pygmalion is a problematic classic, gleefully misogynist but still too insidiously charming to resist. This spirited staging helmed by Michael Manley ensures that you don't resist long. Deborah Banks is a strong Eliza Doolittle with a good voice, Tom Flynn radiates impish charm as drunkard father Alfred Doolittle, and the performances are generally solid throughout and nicely versatile in the musical numbers, despite some trouble balancing volume levels with the odd instrumentation. -- S.H. (Through August 14 at Contra Costa Civic Theater; 510-524-6654 or CCCT.org)

Showdown at Crawford Gulch -- Probably the most charming of the four San Francisco Mime Troupe productions dedicated to George W. Bush. The Mime Troupe is once again examining the role of the media in furthering a war agenda, but this time it's a little more evenhanded. Although the satire is still pointed, the preaching is subtler and funnier than in years past. -- L.D. (Through Sept. 26 at area parks; 415-285-1717 or SFMT.org)

Twelfth Night -- The San Francisco Shakespeare Festival's production of Twelfth Night is a beauty, visually speaking. It's an intriguing, energetic staging. It's being performed for free in local parks on weekend evenings all summer. In short, it's everything a summer Shakespeare comedy should be, except actually funny. Stephen Klum strikes a slightly sinister presence as Feste, veteran Shakespearean Julian López-Morillas plays disheveled Sir Toby with a devilish savvy, Alex Moggridge is appropriately foppish and clueless as his stooge Sir Andrew, and Jack Powell is the very model of an immovable manservant as Malvolio. It's puzzling, then, that so many punchlines are given a spin that sends them spiraling flat on their faces. The actors do fine work individually, but the whole is less than the sum of its parts. -- S.H. (Through September 26; 415-422-2222 or SFShakes.org)

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