On Stage 

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 Grand Inquisitor -- Eighteen pages out of nearly eight hundred, the story of the Grand Inquisitor is a mere slip of a thing compared to the hulking mass from which it is drawn. But the story Ivan Karamazov tells his younger brother Alyosha is perhaps the best-known bit of Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov -- probably as much for its thought-provoking subject matter as for the fact that it shows up early enough in the book that the folks who won't make it to the end might still be around. Clearly the story spoke to CentralWorks' Gary Graves, who stepped out of the directorial shadows to act in the company's new adaptation. With his head shaved and teeth blackened, Graves is virtually unrecognizable as the creepy, aged protagonist of Ivan's parable about freedom and responsibility. He shares the stage with CentralWorks newcomer David Westley Skillman, who plays all the other roles, using a variety of beautiful voices; the result is intense, if numbing. -- L.D. (Through July 31 at the Berkeley City Club; CentralWorks.org or 510-558-1381.)

Let's Go to the Movies Redux -- New Town Hall artistic director Kevin T. Morales' makeshift musical about a guy who has to write a musical (and who in turn writes a musical about a guy who writes a musical) is a hilarious satire of community theater that builds beautifully on itself, the second act a marvelously over-the-top parody of the first. -- S.H. (August 4-14 at the Ashby Stage; THTC.org or 925-283-1557.)

Much Ado About Nothing -- This summer's Free Shakespeare in the Park offering from the San Francisco Shakespeare Festival is an exceedingly light comedy with a great cruelty at the center, too-passionate Claudio's (Michael Navarra) shaming of radiant Hero (Sofia Ahmad) at the altar. Kenneth Kelleher's frolicsome production gives both the comedy and the pathos their due while no more dwelling on the disconnect than on the odd directorial decision to have our heroes seemingly be soldiers of Fascist Spain. The lively sparring of acid-tongued Beatrice (Julia Brothers) and Benedick (Stephen Klum) is marred only by a vulnerability too thinly veiled (in his case almost desperately). The choice to give constable Dogberry (Jack Powell) a thick accent undermines his malapropisms as possibly the audience's fault for not understanding, but goofy touches such as making the villainous Don Juan (Brian Herndon) a lisping fop work well, even when the slapstick and stage laughter don't. -- S.H. (Through September 24 in area parks; SFShakes.org or 415-558-0888.)

Over the Tavern -- We shall know the things which we are to believe from the Catholic Church, through which God speaks to us. That's the answer to question number ten of the Baltimore Catechism, How shall we know the things which we are to believe? And it's not good enough for Rudy Pazinski, a bright, normal twelve-year-old kid growing up in the late '50s, who isn't clear what stern Sister Clarissa is asking for when she demands he be a "soldier of Christ." "Cards on the table, Sister," he growls like a guy twice his age. "I'm twelve years old -- what does Christ want with me?" So he starts looking for his own answers, to the bewilderment of everyone around him. So begins Tom Dudzik's sweet, lively Over the Tavern, the first of three plays about the Polish Catholic Pazinski family of Buffalo, New York. The Willows Theatre Company has a winner on its hands. -- L.D. (Through July 17 at the Willows; WillowsTheatre.org or 925-798-1300.)

Ruthless! The Musical -- Nothing says summer more than camp, and camp is one thing this showbiz musical dishes out in spades. Fortunately, devilish wit and Broadway-pastiche showstoppers are also in plentiful supply. Joel Paley and Marvin Laird's comedy about a murderous moppet who will do anything to score the lead in the school play is given a delightfully lively staging in this Point Richmond community theater production. -- S.H. (Through July 23 at Masquers Playhouse; Masquers.org or 510-232-3888.)

The Thousandth Night -- An explosion sends a fast-talking French actor tumbling into a train station. So begins Carol Wolf's The Thousandth Night, a funny yet scathing examination of complicity and self-preservation written expressly to fit around actor Ron Campbell like his character's old coat. Night is set in Nazi-occupied France in 1943. Guy de Bonheur's concentration-camp-bound train has been thrown from the tracks by a Resistance bomb. Sheltering in the train station, the actor sets out to distract the gendarmes by acting out four of the "little stories" his troupe used to perform at Cafe Scheherazade in Paris before the other members were deported, beaten, or just mysteriously disappeared. -- L.D. (Through July 24 at the Aurora; AuroraTheatre.org or 510-843-4822.)

Thunderbabe -- Writer-producer-star Bobbi Fagone's middle-aged superhero romp is all too familiar in the post-Incredibles cultural landscape: Eighteen years after hanging up her spandex to raise a family, the titular heroine is dragged out of retirement by the return of her archnemesis and has some 'splaining to do about her double life. -- S.H. (Through July 17 at Altarena Playhouse; Altarena.org or 510-523-1553)


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