Capsule Reviews 

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."

Grease -- When it comes right down to it, Grease is a lot like porn. You're sure not going for the plot. The characters are just there for a song or three, and there's not much more to them than that. It's a good thing that the songs are fun as bubblegum goes, and that the Contra Costa Musical Theatre gang sings 'em pretty well. It's not especially inspired, but everyone goes through the motions with big smiles and in good voice. -- S.H. (Through October 2 at the Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts; 925-943-7469 or DLRCA.org)

The Persians -- Where have we heard this before? A young king sends his legions across a great distance into battle against a smaller native force in a bid for empire. The smaller force proves intractable and wrests a surprising win from the fray. Back home, a chorus bemoans the way the young king has poured away the youth of his nation "like so much water into desert sand" in a vain attempt to avenge his father's failure to overcome the opposing force. In the program for Aurora's production of The Persians, actress and playwright Ellen McLaughlin swears that in her new adaptation of the Greek Aeschylus' play, the Persian kings Darius and Xerxes are not Bushes senior and junior. Yet the work is clearly intended to make audiences face the magnitude of what is happening in Iraq. McLaughlin says she adapted with a light hand, trying to let the original story speak clearly, yet the show doesn't feel like some hoary old Greek thing. The structure of the play builds in intensity -- first we meet the chorus, then Xerxes' regal but troubled mother Atossa, then a bloodied, battered soldier who has dragged himself home to spread the bad news, and finally Xerxes himself. It's a slow, relentless build; there is nothing light about this play. Sadly, recriminations and blame are also familiar to our time, and we get those as well in this scathing production. -- L.D. (Through October 10; 510-843-4822 or AuroraTheatre.org).

Ravenscroft -- This dark comedy by Don Nigro is a bit uneven, as if it can't decide whether it's a parody of gothic murder mysteries or a gothic murder mystery with comic moments. In either case, those comic moments are awfully clever. This community theater production helmed by Steve Hill makes the most of its bare-bones set of scattered chairs and end tables by having the five women sitting in the background whenever they're not being interrogated, as a human backdrop. The performances along the way are generally solid. -- S.H. (Through October 2 at Masquers Playhouse; 510-232-3888 or Masquers.org)

The Secret in the Wings -- Mary Zimmerman, the lyrical imagination behind Journey to the West, Metamorphoses, and last season's Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, hits us again with another stunningly lovely journey of images and ideas with The Secret in the Wings at the Berkeley Rep. Notebooks was wonderful, but this piece is even more so, in part because it is more coherent and more deeply emotional. While the ideas aren't as challenging, the characterizations are more varied and complex, the narrative throughline clearer and more compelling. Heidi's parents are off to a dinner party, and they guiltily leave her in the care of their neighbor, who the girl is convinced is an ogre. And indeed he is. But he also has a book of European fairy tales, some more familiar than others, and he sets about captivating Heidi with tales of boys turned into swans, lost loves, evil nursemaids, and a terminally bored teenage princess who shows us why competitions for the hands of princesses are not always such a good idea. Gradually Heidi is swayed, but the ending is still a surprise. Many of Zimmerman's trademarks are firmly in evidence: the use of repetition in language and motion, characters appearing and disappearing through unusual holes in the set, a floor gradually covered in detritus. There's a lot to look at, and laugh at, and wonder about. This one's a beautiful don't-miss. -- L.D. (Through October 17; 510-647-2949 or BerkeleyRep.org).

Tintypes -- This nostalgic musical revue strings together medleys of inescapable classics and obscure gems from 1876 up through 1920 with a couple introductory sentences here, some snippets of familiar speeches there, uncomplicated by plot or characters. Teddy Roosevelt, Emma Goldman, and Anna Held show up a few times, and it's possible that the stiff bits of silent slapstick are intended to evoke Charlie Chaplin. There's a fine reconstruction toward the end of some hoary vaudeville routines, but it's mostly an excuse for some amiable renditions of beloved old chestnuts from Sousa and Scott Joplin to Bert Williams and "Hello, Ma Baby," like a sing-along without, you know, singing along. The vocal performances are generally pleasant, and musical director Janet Oliphant contributes some fine ragtime piano. -- S.H. (Through October 9 at Altarena Playhouse; 510-523-1553 or Altarena.org)

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