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. -- 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.)

Crumble (Lay Me Down, Justin Timberlake) -- Most adolescents are convinced that adults will never understand what they're going through. Here, the youth in question is right. Screaming obscenities, serving bleach to the dolls at her tea parties, and refusing to wash, Janice is indeed odder than most eleven-year-olds. But then, Janice lost her dad a year ago, so it's to be expected that she's a little off. What's odd is that nobody seems to understand why that would be so, except the spirit of the dilapidated apartment she shares with her mom Clara, who's not doing so hot herself, what with the panic attacks. And the apartment, played by a black-clad man with a vaguely menacing accent, has its own agenda. -- L.D. (Through December 10 at LaVal's Subterranean; ImpactTheatre.com or 510-464-4468.)

Cry Don't Cry -- A Balé Techlorico production collaboratively created by the five performers with director Christine Young and developed through the Shotgun Theatre Lab, Cry Don't Cry is a slyly funny mock funeral without being a mockery of one. The mourners are only roughly sketched characters, and there are times when the short piece definitely feels like the experimental work in progress it is, but overall its mix of earnestness and impishness rings true, replete with poignant philosophical monologues, a delightful puppet show, the titular hip-hop homily, amusing little songs, and some great trashcan-thumping percussion. -- S.H. (Through November 17 at the Ashby Stage; ShotgunPlayers.org or 510-841-6500.)

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. -- S.H. (Through December 17 at Masquers Playhouse; Masquers.org or 510-232-4031.)

Happy End -- Screwball and Brecht don't fit easily in the same sentence. Yet that's exactly the combination in the German playwright's Happy End, which has mysteriously emerged from obscurity to see not one but two Bay Area productions in the 2005-2006 season. If it's hard to go wrong with Chicago gangsters doing a little soft-shoe to live accompaniment, it's even harder to go wrong when those gangsters are played by well-cast women in big suits, the stage combat is downright silly, and the audience is seeded with fake prostitutes during the second act. -- L.D. (Through December 4 at Luka's Taproom and Lounge and Original Joe's in SF; WomansWill.org or 510-420-0813.)

Oliver! -- Folks who love the earnest enthusiasm of community theater will find plenty to relish in the Willows Theatre's new production. The Concord company pulls out all the stops, using revolving sets and complicated choreography to tell the classic tale of Oliver Twist, the orphan waif adrift in the mean streets of London. However, those who fault this musical for its mundane dialogue and sentimental, cliché-ridden songs will not find it improved in this interpretation by the sons of suburbia, whose pink cheeks are smudged with fake coal dust. -- E.S. (Through December 31 at the Willows; WillowsTheatre.org or 925-798-1300.)

The Rusalka Cycle -- The product of a trip to Ukraine to witness agrarian fertility rituals to honor the powerful female Rusalki spirits, this theater piece by the generally excellent local Balkan women's chorus Kitka might benefit from just being a concert piece. The music composed and directed by Mariana Sadovska chiefly from Ukrainian folk songs (but with some Balkan and even American songs woven in as well) is often hauntingly beautiful and mournful, but the accompanying theatrical element directed by Ellen Sebastian Chang distracts from the music more than it adds, because it's divorced from any meaning it may or may not have if you speak the language. -- S.H. (Through November 20 at Malonga Casquelourd Center for the Arts; Kitka.org or 510-444-0323)

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. -- 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. -- E.S. (Through November 19 at the Dean Lesher Center; DLRCA.org or 925-943-SHOW.)

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