On Stage 

Our critics weigh in on local theater.

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Cherry Docs -- Canadian playwright David Gow is well aware that skinhead violence is a sober and serious subject, and he takes pains to address it in a fair and balanced way. In that sense, Cherry Docs is an important play about an important topic. But although Traveling Jewish Theatre gives it a smart staging for its West Coast premiere under the direction of TJT cofounder Naomi Newman, the play itself could stand to develop the medium for its message. A middle-aged liberal Jewish lawyer is appointed to represent a white-supremacist skinhead who kicked an Indian man so brutally that he died of the injuries sustained in the beating. They have to work together to assemble a defense and try to get at what motivated the defendant to do such a thing, and in the process learn something about themselves. It's a two-person play alternating between parallel monologues and more naturalistic scenes in which lawyer and client meet to berate each other and hash out a strategy. It's like a buddy flick except that they hate each other. The verbal sparring is where all the tension lies. TJT artistic director Aaron Davidman has a beautifully casual poise in early scenes as lawyer Danny, baiting skinhead Mike with the easy superiority of a man with nothing but contempt for his client. As Mike, artistic associate Eric Rhys Miller rises to the challenge, if not the bait, with cagey intelligence and exaggerated deference. But when Mike is alone in his cell, talking about his white-supremacist tattoos or his stomping boots that give the play its title, he does so with a childish smugness. Where he should be menacing, he simply makes you want to slap him upside his bald head and tell him to stop acting the fool. -- S.H. (Through June 5 at Traveling Jewish Theatre, and at the Julia Morgan Center for the Arts June 9-19; ATJT.com or 415-285-8080.)

Impact Briefs 7: The How-To Show -- The briefs in question aren't short plays so much as skits unified by a clever "how-to" theme. Fortunately, they're very funny, and don't have that irritating Saturday Night Live quality of starting strong and going nowhere slowly. It's all pretty slight stuff but awfully entertaining, and the actual vintage instructional films shown between the segments are nearly as funny as the briefs themselves. -- S.H. (Through May 28 at La Val's Subterranean; ImpactTheatre.com or 510-464-4468.)

Judgment at Nuremberg -- After World War II, an international tribunal assembled at Nuremberg to try high-ranking Nazis for war crimes. But that is not the judgment we witness in Judgment at Nuremberg. By the time the play begins, the rest of the world has gone home, and American tribunals have gone down the food chain to put on trial a variety of professionals who in one way or another collaborated with the Nazi regime -- in this case, several German judges. The titular judgment is that of Judge Dan Haywood, all folksy charm at his leisure, but stern and authoritative in the courtroom. The only significant defendant is Ernst Janning, an internationally respected jurist who, despite all his high ideals, played along with the dictates of the dictatorship. The more we hear about him, the more he sounds like an honorable man in an impossible situation. That's very much to the credit of his lawyer, Oscar Rolfe, played with passion and gravity by Mark Farrell. There are, of course, many sides to the story, and when the judgment comes it chooses between them unequivocally in a way that leaves no doubt as to where the author stands. Ultimately, though, the play's questions are far more interesting than its answers. -- S.H. (Through May 29 at the Willows Theatre; WillowsTheatre.org or 925-798-1300.)

The People's Temple -- It's no coincidence that the parts of our history we don't like to remember are precisely those parts it's imperative that we not forget. So it is with the 1978 tragedy at Jonestown, Guyana, where the Reverend Jim Jones murdered visiting Congressman Leo J. Ryan and commanded nine hundred members of Peoples Temple to poison themselves and their children in a mass murder-suicide. That makes Berkeley Rep's world premiere of The People's Temple, a new testimonial theater piece created and directed by Tectonic Theatre Project's Leigh Fondakowski, a noble effort and an important one. But that doesn't make it good theater. That it is such a remarkable piece of work is a testament to the three and a half years of hard work that went into weaving together excerpts from interviews with survivors. The focus is always on the people's stories, not one of which could possibly leave you cold. Bob Ernst as the hard-boiled reporter who broke the story about what was really going on in the Peoples Temple, shows surprising sympathy to Jones' motives and even claims responsibility himself for the group's increasing sense of persecution and sudden exodus to Guyana. One of the marvelous things about this play is how well it captures the joy of Peoples Temple at its height, even as it foreshadows the horrific end to come. -- S.H. (Through May 29 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre; BerkeleyRep.org or 510-647-2949.)

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