On Stage 

Our critics weigh in on local theater

Reviews by Lisa Drostova and Sam Hurwitt

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."

The Farndale Avenue Housing Estate Townswomen's Guild Dramatic Society's Production of Macbeth -- You may think you know Macbeth. But until you've seen The Farndale Avenue Housing Estate Townswomen's Guild Dramatic Society's Production of Macbeth, you haven't really felt all the suspense, treachery, or deep silliness. The authors of this nutty, fun show thought of every possible thing that could go wrong in a community theater production. -- L.D. (Through February 26 at the Masquers Playhouse; Masquers.org or 510-232-4031.)

The Mousetrap -- If you know anything about Agatha Christie, you probably know everything you need to know about this droll little whodunit. There are all the usual turnabouts, red herrings, and outright cheats, and the usual suspects are as broad and shifty as possible. It's all good fun, and nothing too terrible happens -- except murder. It's best taken at farce value. -- S.H. (Through February 19 at Contra Costa Civic Theater; CCCT.org or 510-524-9132.)

The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940 -- As murder mystery spoofs go, this 1987 farce by John Bishop seemingly has everything going for it: a spooky house with secret passageways (Drew Cambra's stately set is one of the more active characters in the piece) and ten suspects, all Hollywood types, who pretend to have just come up with classic songs from "Lullaby of Broadway" to "Night and Day." It's directed by Kevin T. Morales, who created last year's hilarious Let's Go to the Movies and has just been named the Lafayette theater's artistic director, and has a cast full of comedic standouts from past productions (Jerry Motta, D'Arcy Erokan, Cynthia Myers). The only trouble is, it just isn't funny. The script shoots nothing but blanks, and the timing is often puzzlingly bad, with the killer just hanging out onstage waiting for something to happen. We can sympathize. -- S.H. (Through February 20 at Town Hall Theatre; THTC.org or 925-283-1557.)

The Rainmaker -- N. Richard Nash's 1954 romantic comedy is pretty hokey: 1920s ranchers in the generic West grapple with drought and the prospect of an unmarried daughter turning into an old maid (the two sons ain't married either, but never mind that) until a flimflam man comes calling to promise rain and brings some magic into their lives. But this San Leandro community theater sells it well, with an inventive three-location set by Ric Koller and brassy, larger-than-life performances from real-life couple Michele Leavy and James Hiser as the spinster and the huckster. Director Mike Reynolds' lively production also benefits from Michael Austin's goofy energy as the not-too-bright younger brother, Billy Hayes' stoic cowboy stance as the only single guy in town, and Blake Maxam's folksy charm as the kindly sheriff. Michael Barr is a cipher as the overbearing older brother, and Jesse Caldwell is pleasant but placid as the widower dad. -- S.H. (Through February 20 at California Conservatory Theatre; CCT-SL.org or 510-632-8850.)

Seduced -- For anyone who thinks The Aviator doesn't dwell enough on Howard Hughes' later, crazier years, Seduced will help you get over that. In this 1979 indulgence from Sam Shepard, the scarcely fictionalized Hughes stand-in is played with the fitful delivery usually heard when an actor plays a dog. The trouble is in the script. It's all very dreamlike, just like someone telling you all about that weird dream he had. -- S.H. (Through February 19 at Live Oak Theatre; AEofBerkeley.org or 510-649-5999.)

The Serpent -- Beautiful and strange, Jean-Claude van Itallie's The Serpent is not really a play, but a nonlinear series of experiences meant to create a feeling of ritual. So while it feels very much a product of 1968, its themes and images also work in a contemporary context. Which makes it an interesting work for the Ragged Wing Ensemble to present as its first theatrical offering. The chorus and a cast of five act out an autopsy, the assassinations of JFK and Dr. Martin Luther King, Eve's tête-á-tête with the snake, and other seemingly disparate moments. There is more than a hint of the acid trip here. But whatever you want to call it, The Serpent is a solid offering from an intriguing new company. -- L.D. (Through February 19 at the Eighth Street Studio; RaggedWing.org or 510-527-8119.)

What the Night Is For -- Two adulterous lovers, separated for a decade, spend a fateful evening discovering that the spark still burns. Could be spicy or tender, but in the hands of Playhouse West it produces the same feeling one gets watching a couple argue in a mall. Playwright Michael Weller has the verbal fencing part down, but it's not the sort of argument one can take even a voyeuristic pleasure in witnessing. -- L.D. (Through February 19 at the DLRCA Knight 3 Stage; PlayhouseWest.org or 925-943-SHOW.)


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