What's Happening in East Bay Theater 

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."

Achilles and Patroclus -- According to Homer, the Trojan War lasted ten years. Hopefully the war on Iraq won't last as long, because Berkeley theater companies will soon run out of variations on Homer's Iliad to use as antiwar messages. Add now the balanced, heartbreaking Achilles and Patroclus from CentralWorks. Writer Gary Graves can get a little ponderous, but this story is dynamic and shows off his versatility. Cole Smith's Achilles has one hell of a journey, from surly soldier to playful lover to sensitive spiritual guy and peace activist to his eventual descent into madness and vengeance. This is not your high school Homer; intensely realized, funny, and very sad by turns, Achilles and Patroclus is a complex, modern love story. -- L.D. (Through November 20 at the Berkeley City Club; CentralWorks.org or 510-558-1381.)

The Arab-Israeli Cookbook -- The first thing you need to know about this TheatreFIRST production is that if you don't eat before the show, you'll be miserable. In the first act alone, there's lavish discussion of fattoush, hummus, stuffed zucchini, stuffed vine leaves, marinated chicken, Greek salad, falafel, mushroom quiche, beetroot salad, apples and honey, and Thai noodles with veal. This show illuminates the Arab-Israeli conflict by introducing characters who go beyond the Arab/Jew dichotomy: Greek Orthodox, urbanites, villagers, gay couples, etc. And the characters mostly talk about food -- which is a clever way to get past abstraction and chest-beating. Much about the concept works, but it starts to feel limited by the end of the first act. Robin Soans clearly fell so love in with the people he talked to that he wasn't as merciless in his editing as the piece needs. While it's sweet and unexpectedly tasty, The Arab-Israeli Cookbook also could stand to be less filling. -- L.D. (November 10-20 at the Old Oakland Theatre, and December 1-4 at the Traveling Jewish Theatre in San Francisco; TheatreFIRST.com or 510-436-5085.)

Dear World -- Absolutely nothing happens in this pleasing but insubstantial 1969 Jerry Herman musical based on Jean Giraudoux' The Madwoman of Chaillot (despite a promising setup about blowing up a Parisian cafe to get at crude oil underneath), but there are enough hilariously dotty old ladies, cloying saintly mutes, gleefully fiendish entrepreneurs, and stirring songs drenched in sentimental antimodernity to keep you entertained. Ann Homrighausen is a hoot as the irrepressible Countess Aurelia, despite a mite too much madwoman makeup. Some of the timing could stand to be tightened at the beginning of each act in director Pat Nelson's staging (and the ingenue's big love song sounds as if it might be heartrending were it sung on key), but by and large it's a lively community theater production with solid musical direction by Pat King, fine lacy gowns by Jo Lusk, and nicely detailed sets by John Hull. -- S.H. (Through December 17 at Masquers Playhouse; Masquers.org or 510-232-4031.)

Macbeth -- If you've always thought someone should do a Macbeth in which Green Lantern kills Superman and Batman, then your moment has come. With the entire cast in homemade-looking trick-or-treat costumes by Melissa Paterson, director Kevin T. Morales' Halloween-themed production is fun and diverting, though it often feels as if it's diverting from the drama of the story itself. With giggling teen witches, some impressive fight choreography by Bruce Cole, and familiar tunes by Green Day and the Police sung between scenes, there are plenty of amusements to help sell one of Shakespeare's plays that really doesn't need much help in the first place. -- S.H. (Through November 12 at Town Hall Theatre; THTC.org or 925-283-1557.)

Six Degrees of Separation -- Often funny if stilted and never naturalistic, John Guare's rumination on class and identity gives little room for misinterpretation but ample food for thought. Inspired by a true story that caused the playwright some grief and somehow did not directly involve Kevin Bacon, the action begins on the level of droll anecdote by a married couple of well-heeled art dealers who get an unexpected visit from a mysterious, eloquent young stranger who claims to be the son of Sidney Poitier. Actors Ensemble gives it a lively workout in this bare-bones production directed by Mike Ward with a surprisingly large cast considering how few are onstage at any one time. Lance Gardner brings an engaging mixture of erudite unction and near-beatific enthusiasm to the purported Poitier, and Susan Jackson and Leo Lawhorn are charmingly smarmy when entertaining guests, though at loose ends when left alone together to tell the tale in slackly timed interruptions. -- S.H. (Through November 19 at Live Oak Theatre; AEofBerkeley.org or 510-649-5999.)

The Women -- Clare Boothe Luce's witty play is one long gossipfest, as women exchange choice tidbits about cheating husbands over hands of bridge and in powder rooms. The men never make an appearance, but they are all-important in this 1930s milieu, when wealthy women of leisure had only one task: keeping their spouses happy by the homefires. Excellent work by the ensemble cast and a beautifully stylized production make this a show to remember. But a word to the wise: If you've been philandering of late, suggest alternate entertainment to your mate or be prepared for a most uncomfortable evening. -- E.S. (Through November 19 at the Dean Lesher Center; DLRCA.org or 925-943-SHOW.)

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