On Stage 

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."

Cherry Docs -- Canadian playwright David Gow is well aware that skinhead violence is a sober and serious subject, and 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.)

Making Noise Quietly -- Oakland's TheatreFIRST makes a point of unearthing neglected plays from abroad and introducing them to local audiences. But Robert Holman's Making Noise Quietly, which debuted in London in 1986, isn't a play so much as what would be called skits, were they the least bit comic -- three dramatic sketches loosely clumped around the effect war has on ordinary people. The first two don't develop far enough from their original premises to stand on their own, so they're lumped in with the meatier third piece in hopes of suggesting a larger picture. But the thread that links them is too thin. In the first piece, Being Friends, an upper-class gay artist comes upon a hunky Quaker farmworker napping on a field in Kent during World War II. Through the flirty picnic they share, the simple Quaker tentatively grapples with his sexual curiosity and concerns about whether this really is a war to which he should be conscientiously objecting. Not to spoil anything, but there's some male nudity in this one. The second short, Lost, concerns a naval officer visiting the mother of a comrade killed in the Falkland Islands. Sue Trigg, as the neglected working-class British housewife, has to come to terms with her grief and her anger all at the same time, going back and forth between bitter resentment and almost desperate hospitality to her mild-mannered visitor. The most intriguing playlet is the last, also called Making Noise Quietly, directed by Erin Gilley. A German painter and Holocaust survivor plays the part of Mary Poppins to a ne'er-do-well abusive drifter and his battered, feral stepson, who steals things and refuses to speak. The play is solely concerned with analyzing papa Alan's behavior, and its effectiveness is very much to the credit of the excellent performances. Only in this last piece is there a hint of something more than what we learn in the first five minutes. -- S.H. (Through June 5 at Mills College; TheatreFIRST.com or 510-436-5085.)

The Taming of the Shrew -- Let's face it: Shakespeare's subjugation-of-women storyline? Not funny. Rather than undermine it by suggesting shrewish Kate is just playing along, Tom Bentley's Subterranean Shakespeare production uses a Promise Keepers setting to say that yes, her will is crushed, and no, that's not funny. This reimagining doesn't enrich the story so much as work against it, so it's hard to get past the cynical deceit even in the young-lovers subplot. The performances are animated and articulate, but cold and creepy. Mary Mackey's Kate is pretty tame to begin with, her barbs merely playful, and Scott Nordquist's Petruchio blurs the line between boisterous yahoo and borderline psychotic. But it's a stylish production, from the mournful a cappella renditions of popular songs to Nicole Hollis' slick black suits for the men and corseted couture for the women, and the "I will be master of what is mine own" speech has never been so chilling. - S.H. (Through June 24 at Berkeley Art Center; 510-276-3871.)

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