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."

The Grand Inquisitor -- Eighteen pages out of nearly eight hundred, the story of the Grand Inquisitor is a mere slip of a thing compared to the hulking mass from which it is drawn. But the story Ivan Karamazov tells his younger brother Alyosha is perhaps the best-known bit of Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov -- probably as much for its thought-provoking subject matter as for the fact that it shows up early enough in the book that the folks who won't make it to the end might still be around. Clearly the story spoke to CentralWorks' Gary Graves, who stepped out of the directorial shadows to act in the company's new adaptation. With his head shaved and teeth blackened, Graves is virtually unrecognizable as the creepy, aged protagonist of Ivan's parable about freedom and responsibility. He shares the stage with CentralWorks newcomer David Westley Skillman, who plays all the other roles, using a variety of beautiful voices; the result is intense, if numbing. While as intelligent as anything else the company has done, The Grand Inquisitor could use a little more variety, a little relief. -- L.D. (Through July 31 at the Berkeley City Club; CentralWorks.org or 510-558-1381.)

Let's Go to the Movies Redux -- New Town Hall artistic director Kevin T. Morales' makeshift musical about a guy who has to write a musical (and who in turn writes a musical about a guy who writes a musical) is a hilarious satire of community theater that builds beautifully on itself, the second act a marvelously over-the-top parody of the first. -- S.H. (August 4-14 at the Ashby Stage; THTC.org or 925-283-1557.)

Over the Tavern -- We shall know the things which we are to believe from the Catholic Church, through which God speaks to us. That's the answer to question number ten of the Baltimore Catechism, How shall we know the things which we are to believe? And it's not good enough for Rudy Pazinski, a bright, normal twelve-year-old kid growing up in the late '50s, who isn't clear what stern Sister Clarissa is asking for when she demands he be a "soldier of Christ." "Cards on the table, Sister," he growls like a guy twice his age. "I'm twelve years old -- what does Christ want with me?" So he starts looking for his own answers, to the bewilderment of everyone around him. So begins Tom Dudzik's sweet, lively Over the Tavern, the first of three plays about the Polish Catholic Pazinski family of Buffalo, New York. Loosely biographical, Tavern follows Rudy home to the cramped apartment over his father Chet's bar, and lays out what happens there with honesty and wit. The Willows Theatre Company has a winner on its hands, and director Richard Elliott realizes it nicely. The relationship between Rudy (David Beal) and Sister Clarissa (Barbara Grant) is believable and nuanced. Grant is alternately terrifying and appealing. David Beal's Rudy is fully formed -- self-confident, loyal, and mischievous. You don't have to be a Catholic to get and enjoy Over the Tavern, and in fact it might be easier for those who weren't educated by nuns to sit through. Over the Tavern reminds us that every generation has its struggles, but does so warmly and well. -- L.D. (Through July 17 at the Willows; WillowsTheatre.org or 925-798-1300.)

Ruthless! The Musical -- Nothing says summer more than camp, and camp is one thing this showbiz musical dishes out in spades. Fortunately, devilish wit and Broadway-pastiche showstoppers are also in plentiful supply. With the inevitable (but still funny) drag auntie and frequent nods to The Bad Seed and All About Eve, Joel Paley and Marvin Laird's comedy about a murderous moppet who will do anything to score the lead in the school play is given a delightfully lively staging in this Point Richmond community theater production. -- S.H. (Through July 23 at Masquers Playhouse; Masquers.org or 510-232-3888.)

Thunderbabe -- Writer-producer-star Bobbi Fagone's middle-aged superhero romp is all too familiar in the post-Incredibles cultural landscape: Eighteen years after hanging up her spandex to raise a family, the titular heroine is dragged out of retirement by the return of her archnemesis and has some ‘splaining to do about her double life. Some funny lines aren't quite enough to carry the slow and predictable story, in which it doesn't matter if her loved ones are in danger and the villain has sent her directions to her lair and several reminder calls. It'll take more than that to get Babe off her butt to save the world. But a generally strong comedic cast almost saves the day; it includes Ben Ortega as horny superhero Golden Falcon, Frederik Goris as ineffectual sidekick Finchboy, Gigi Anthony as the spunky best friend, and Jennifer Lucas as the swaggering, sneering supervillain. - S.H. (Through July 17 at Altarena Playhouse; Altarena.org or 510-523-1553)

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