For complete up-to-date East Bay theater listings, look under "Billboard" on the home page for the "Select Category" pulldown, then select "Theater & Performance Arts".
The Night of the Hunter-- The new musical adaptation of Davis Grubb's dark novel The Night of the Hunter isn't wretched. Nor is it particularly inspiring, even with all the energy and enthusiasm of its world premiere at the Willows, and that's unfortunate. The Willows got this work-in-progress because writer Stephen Cole and director John Bowab wanted a safe place to work out the kinks before approaching Broadway. What with a concept album on Varèse Sarabande, workshops at New York's Vineyard Theatre and Chicago's Goodman, and plenty of buzz, there's a lot riding on this production. But there's also a lot of audience expectation -- Night was published 51 years ago, and soon made into a stunning and rather weird film noir. Fans of either the novel or the film may find that this new version falls short of the mark. When a bank robber takes the secret of his loot to the gallows, his cellmate visits his widow to see if she might have some idea as to the whereabouts of the cash. With his charm and his bone-handled switchblade, he figures he can separate the widow from the loot. Which leads to a nail-biting game of cat-and-mouse between the cellmate and the widow's young son. It wouldn't be fair to critique the musical based solely on how closely it resembles the film version. But comparing it to the original novel does it no favors either. Somewhere along the path to making the story palatable to a musical-theater audience, this Night lost its mojo. The problem can be summed up easily -- besides not being especially musically inventive, this work just isn't scary. The infusion of New York talent (Brian Noonan and Lynne Wintersteller), a stage design heavy on dripping trees that apparently tries (and fails) to evoke cinematographer Stanley Cortez' haunting use of shadows, and a passel of kids who dance well isn't enough to make this flawed Night fly. -- L.D. (Through October 24; 925-798-1300 or WillowsTheatre.org)
ReOrient 2004 -- Golden Thread's festival of Middle Eastern-themed shorts is as much a mixed bag in execution as it is in conception, but it's well worth catching despite the rough bits. The Thursday/Saturday set includes two fascinating monologues, Betty Shamieh's biting account of growing up Arab in NYC and Naomi Wallace's chilling portrait of one Israeli's part in keeping down the Palestinians. Along with a charming love story set in midair, they more than make up for a portentous postapocalyptic kiddie cannibal piece and a wooden sketch about an Iranian passion play. Kevin Doyle's hilarious and poignant deconstruction of a CNN segment about a downed soldier in Iraq is both the most tenuously Middle Eastern and the highlight of the Friday/Sunday batch, which also includes an incomprehensible piece about grieving Turkish mothers turning into tomatoes and a witty trifle about an Armenian arranged marriage where the bride has gone invisible. -- S.H. (October 15-24 at the Ashby Stage; 510-986-9194 or GoldenThread.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. 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. 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).
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