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."

Aya de León Is Running for President -- In a dry and desperate election season, de León's latest one-woman show is a much-needed shot in the arm, containing powerful indictments of American imperialism, homophobia, child abuse, internalized oppression, and "shame-based theology"; funny and rousing odes to sensitive guys and the hip-hop generation; and devastating reflections on topics ranging from Vieques to R. Kelly. A collection of politically-themed performance poems strung together through unusually inspiring stump speeches -- the kind of right-on truth-telling we wish we could hear from actual candidates once in a while -- it's more loose-knit than her recent Thieves in the Temple: The Reclaiming of Hip-Hop but energizing in all the right ways. Performed in excerpts and full shows in community centers and churches throughout the month, this show isn't about acting, it's about taking action. "Since this is supposed to be a representative democracy," she says, "it's time for us to represent." Amen to that. -- S.H. (Through October 29 at various venues; 510-273-2473 or AyadeLeon.com)

Groucho: A Life in Revue -- It's not a one-man show, but it fits the profile: An old guy waxes sentimental about days gone by, offering glimpses of himself in his prime along the way. Jerry Motta makes a pretty good Groucho, though he's more convincing with his props: the mustache, the cigar, the walk. The interspersed greatest-hits routines are well-chosen but remind us that no one could really sell this material the way the Marx Brothers could. Steve Haupt and Joel Roster feel like amiable understudies as Chico and Harpo, as if playing the fading ghosts of the brothers. Sarah Andrews Reynolds performs admirably as an array of starlets, interviewers, wives, and Margaret Dumont. A number of the old punch lines still pack some punch, but it's the mawkish moments -- understandable because the play was co-written by son Arthur Marx -- that really make us miss Groucho. No doubt he would have made fun of them beautifully. -- S.H. (Through October 31 at Town Hall Theatre; 925-283-1557 or THTC.org)

The Night of the Hunter -- The new musical adaptation of Davis Grubb's dark novel isn't wretched. Nor is it particularly inspiring, even with all the energy and enthusiasm of its world premiere at the Willows, and that's unfortunate. The Willows got this work-in-progress because writer Stephen Cole and director John Bowab wanted a safe place to work out the kinks before approaching Broadway. What with a concept album on Varèse Sarabande, workshops at New York's Vineyard Theatre and Chicago's Goodman, and plenty of buzz, there's a lot riding on this production. But there's also a lot of audience expectation -- Night was published 51 years ago, and soon made into a stunning and rather weird film noir. Fans of either the novel or the film may find that this new version falls short of the mark. When a bank robber takes the secret of his loot to the gallows, his cellmate visits his widow to see if she might have some idea as to the whereabouts of the cash. With his charm and his bone-handled switchblade, he figures he can separate the widow from the loot. Which leads to a nail-biting game of cat-and-mouse between the cellmate and the widow's young son. It wouldn't be fair to critique the musical based solely on how closely it resembles the film version, but comparing it to the original novel does it no favors either. Somewhere along the path to making the story palatable to a musical-theater audience, this Night lost its mojo. The problem can be summed up easily -- besides not being especially musically inventive, this work just isn't scary. The infusion of New York talent (Brian Noonan and Lynne Wintersteller), a stage design heavy on dripping trees that apparently tries (and fails) to evoke cinematographer Stanley Cortez' haunting use of shadows, and a passel of kids who dance well isn't enough to make this flawed Night fly. -- L.D. (Through October 24; 925-798-1300 or WillowsTheatre.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. (October 15-24 at the Ashby Stage; 510-986-9194 or GoldenThread.org)

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