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 & Performance Arts."

All's Well That Ends Well -- In this cheerful production of Shakespeare's lightest "Problem Play," the scheming Helena is, to quote Brian Roberts in the film version of Cabaret, about as fatale as an after-dinner mint. Yes, she lays a series of careful traps for the hapless Bertram, but she's just so smart and adorable doing it it's hard to think of her as the manipulative airhead she's too often characterized as. It seems that director Lisa Peterson wants to get All's Well out from under the cloud that haunts the Problem Plays, creating a candy-colored, mischievous take on the girl-gets-boy story. Peterson is a visual director, and it shows here in both the design and the blocking. She also gets some unusual work from her actors. The problem with this play is that the second half of the play necessarily lags. The acting, design, and music are all fine, it just takes a while to get to the payoff. -- L.D. (Through October 10 at the Bruns Amphitheatre; 510-548-9666 or CalShakes.org)

ReOrient 2004 -- Golden Thread's festival of Middle Eastern-themed shorts is as much a mixed bag in execution as it is in conception, but it's well worth catching despite the rough bits. The Thursday/Saturday set includes two fascinating monologues, Betty Shamieh's biting account of growing up Arab in NYC and Naomi Wallace's chilling portrait of one Israeli's part in keeping down the Palestinians. Along with a charming love story set in midair, they more than make up for a portentous postapocalyptic kiddie cannibal piece and a wooden sketch about an Iranian passion play. Kevin Doyle's hilarious and poignant deconstruction of a CNN segment about a downed soldier in Iraq is both the most tenuously Middle Eastern and the highlight of the Friday/Sunday batch, which also includes an incomprehensible piece about grieving Turkish mothers turning into tomatoes and a witty trifle about an Armenian arranged marriage where the bride has gone invisible. -- S.H. (Through October 10 at Noh Space and Oct 15-24 at the Ashby Stage; 510-986-9194 or GoldenThread.org)

The Persians -- Where have we heard this before? A young king sends his legions across a great distance into battle against a smaller native force in a bid for empire. The smaller force proves intractable and wrests a surprising win from the fray. Back home, a chorus bemoans the way the young king has poured away the youth of his nation "like so much water into desert sand" in a vain attempt to avenge his father's failure to overcome the opposing force. In the program for Aurora's production of The Persians, actress and playwright Ellen McLaughlin swears that in her new adaptation of the Greek Aeschylus' play, the Persian kings Darius and Xerxes are not Bushes senior and junior. Yet the work is clearly intended to make audiences face the magnitude of what is happening in Iraq. The structure of the play builds in intensity -- first we meet the chorus, then Xerxes' regal but troubled mother Atossa, then a bloodied, battered soldier who has dragged himself home to spread the bad news, and finally Xerxes himself. It's a slow, relentless build; there is nothing light about this play. Sadly, recriminations and blame are also familiar to our time, and we get those as well in this scathing production. -- L.D. (Through October 10; 510-843-4822 or AuroraTheatre.org)

The Secret in the Wings -- Mary Zimmerman, the lyrical imagination behind Journey to the West, Metamorphoses, and last season's Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, hits us again with another stunningly lovely journey of images and ideas. Notebooks was wonderful, but this piece is even more so, in part because it is more coherent and more deeply emotional. While the ideas aren't as challenging, the characterizations are more varied and complex, the narrative throughline clearer and more compelling. Heidi's parents are off to a dinner party, and they guiltily leave her in the care of their neighbor, who the girl is convinced is an ogre. And indeed he is. But he also has a book of European fairy tales, some more familiar than others, and he sets about captivating Heidi with tales of boys turned into swans, lost loves, evil nursemaids, and a terminally bored teenage princess who shows us why competitions for the hands of princesses are not always such a good idea. Gradually Heidi is swayed, but the ending is still a surprise. There's a lot to look at, and laugh at, and wonder about. This one's a beautiful don't-miss. -- L.D. (Through October 17; 510-647-2949 or BerkeleyRep.org).

Tintypes -- This nostalgic musical revue strings together medleys of inescapable classics and obscure gems from 1876 up through 1920 with a couple introductory sentences here, some snippets of familiar speeches there, uncomplicated by plot or characters. Teddy Roosevelt, Emma Goldman, and Anna Held show up a few times, and it's possible that the stiff bits of silent slapstick are intended to evoke Charlie Chaplin. There's a fine reconstruction toward the end of some hoary vaudeville routines, but it's mostly an excuse for some amiable renditions of beloved old chestnuts from Sousa and Scott Joplin to Bert Williams and "Hello, Ma Baby," like a sing-along without, you know, singing along. -- S.H. (Through October 9 at Altarena Playhouse; 510-523-1553 or Altarena.org)

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