Capsule Reviews 

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 Caucasian Chalk Circle -- Among Bertolt Brecht's more popular plays, The Caucasian Chalk Circle is many things at once. It's a farcical depiction of government corruption, an inspiring tale of perseverance during wartime, a blistering indictment of war profiteering by the ruling class, a Marxist parable about the right of property and who most deserves it. First and perhaps least, it's an adaptation of The Chalk Circle, a Chinese play from around AD 1300 in which a Solomon-like judge places a baby in a chalk-drawn circle and challenges the two women who claim to be its mother to an infant tug-of-war to determine custody. For all that, it makes for an excellent afternoon in the park. -- S.H. (Through August 29 at North Berkeley's John Hinkel Park; 510-841-6500 or ShotgunPlayers.org)

The Mysterious Mr. Looney -- Who really wrote the plays we know as the works of William Shakespeare? It's officially known as the Authorship Question, and while it's pretty abstract for most of us, some people are positively rabid about it. It's enough for now to know that there are two camps. On one side, the Orthodox; people who believe that William Shaksper, the "man from Stratford," is the real author. And then there are the Heretics, and they are legion and varied. We have Baconians, Derbyites, Rutlanders, Oxfordians, Groupists, Marlovians, and so on, ad infinitum, all of whom agree that the man from Stratford might well have been an actor in Shakespeare's plays, but not the author thereof. If you saw Amy Freed's The Beard of Avon at ACT back in 2002, you already know the theory that John Thomas Looney proposes, namely that the plays were actually written by the dissolute Edward de Vere, seventeenth Earl of Oxford. Beard was silly and madcap and probably more entertaining to people with a broad grasp of Shakespeare than not. Looney, by contrast, is intellectual and leisurely -- a pretty classic presentation of this old argument's two main schools of thought, although gussied up with a romantic conflict by writer Gary Graves. Even if questions about who really wrote Shakespeare's plays don't make you want to rush to the basement to start your time machine, The Mysterious Mr. Looney raises many of the con-troversy's most nagging questions in an intelligent and often funny way. And it rewards your endurance of the lagging second act with a spooky answer that is most definitely not an Orthodox answer to the Authorship Question. -- L.D. (Through August 29 at the Berkeley City Club; 510-558-1381 or CentralWorks.org)

Showdown at Crawford Gulch -- Probably the most charming of the four San Francisco Mime Troupe productions dedicated to George W. Bush. The Mime Troupe is once again examining the role of the media in furthering a war agenda, but this time it's a little more evenhanded. Although the satire is still pointed, the preaching is subtler and funnier than in years past. -- L.D. (Through Sept. 26 at area parks; 415-285-1717 or SFMT.org)

A Thurber Carnival -- The live music that accompanies the Douglas Morrison Theatre production of A Thurber Carnival is delightful. It's fortunate that the music is so good, because it eases the excessively long transitions between sketches, and smooths the jagged edges of an amateur cast doing its best with material that is often too subtle for its skills. James Thurber may be one of this country's great humorists, but his martini-dry wit comes through unevenly in this two-hour "revue for people who can't sing," which contains such time-honored bits as "The Night the Bed Fell" and an abridged version of "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty." It should have been a slam dunk for director SRCarnefix and his cast. The show's bits don't require much in the way of character development, Shakespearean memory tricks, or complex blocking. But after a few charming ultra-short modern fables involving wolves and unicorns, the show doesn't jell, and there are long stretches made longer by being painfully unfunny. It's a good introduction to Thurber's work, but the im-patient might find a trip to the library for his non- theatrical work more productive. -- L.D. (Through September 5 at the Douglas Morrison Theatre in Hayward; 510-881-6777).

Twelfth Night -- The San Francisco Shakespeare Festival's production of Twelfth Night is a beauty, visually speaking. It's an intriguing, energetic staging. It's being performed for free in local parks on weekend evenings all summer. In short, it's everything a summer Shakespeare comedy should be, except actually funny. Stephen Klum strikes a slightly sinister presence as Feste, veteran Shakespearean Julian López-Morillas plays disheveled Sir Toby with a devilish savvy, Alex Moggridge is appropriately foppish and clueless as his stooge Sir Andrew, and Jack Powell is the very model of an immovable manservant as Malvolio. It's puzzling, then, that so many punchlines are given a spin that sends them spiraling flat on their faces. The actors do fine work individually, but the whole is less than the sum of its parts. -- S.H. (Through September 26; 415-422-2222 or SFShakes.org)

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