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Our critics weigh in on local theater

All in the Timing. Playwright David Ives' much-celebrated and often-performed collection of quirky, comedic short plays gets a mixed production at Actors Ensemble of Berkeley. When it's firing on all cylinders, this show is a delight to behold. In "The Universal Language," Lia Fischer and Stanley Spenger are especially touching as a teacher and a student trying to connect through words all their own. Yet most of the six shorts lack the timing that is needed to keep Ives' wit bouncing along. "Speed-the-Play," four rapid-fire parodies of David Mamet plays, suffers both from slack execution and from mistakenly assuming that the audience would be such Mamet fans to get all the jokes. The Actors Ensemble's gamble to focus on Ives' more ambitious short plays rather than the crowd-pleasers doesn't pay off. This is a shame because the overall choice of play seems a perfect fit for the 50-year-old community theater, which prides itself on bringing solid entertainment to the people of the East Bay. But the moments when the play is working show glimpses of what a boon for their community this company could be. Through Aug. 11 at Live Oak Theatre, 1301 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley. Tickets are $10-12; call 510-841-5580 or visit (Molly Rhodes). Reviewed Aug. 1.

Grandpa It's Not Fitting. By the time you leave a Will Franken performance, you barely know which way is up. At one point in his latest solo show, the comic performer imitates the voice and aspect of a cheesy History Channel documentary presenter. "The 1960s. A time of change and exploration," he chimes, poking fun at baby boomer nostalgia. Suddenly, without warning, we're thrown backward into a different era: "The 1860s. A time of chaos and exploitation." In another bit, Franken takes on the role of a Muslim suicide bomber, quietly reading the Koran on a plane with a bomb strapped to his tummy. When the plane goes down owing to some non-terrorism-related technical malfunction, he tries to enlist potential survivors to declare him responsible for the act. Elsewhere, Christianity is ridiculed when Franken, posing as a blustering British vicar, tucks references to Noam Chomsky and the Beatles into a cataclysmic religious debate. Sometimes, though, the performer's dense layering of cultural references, tangled viewpoints, and stream-of-consciousness style becomes disorienting. Franken's opening skit concerning a discussion between a terminal breast cancer patient named Mrs. Wit and her physician, one Dr. Posner, about the movie version of the patient's life, contains so much oblique content that the performer risks losing us at the start. As hard as it is to keep up with Franken, he's still San Francisco's patron saint of misrule. Through Sept. 1 at the Marsh San Francisco, 1062 Valencia Street (between 21st and 22nd sts.), S.F. Tickets are $15-35; call 826-5750 or visit (Chloe Veltman). Reviewed Aug. 1.

Making a Killing. The San Francisco Mime Troupe's latest political comedy has plenty of wit and insight that would have been better served by trimming its excess plot. The story at the heart of this play is one of individual responsibility — will our Army field reporter continue to tell only the Iraq feel-good stories his bosses want him to, or get the guts to tell the truth about the corruption and devastation brought by the American invasion? It's a fine message at a time when ordinary citizens feel at a loss to make any difference, served up with the usual Mime Troupe song-and-dance flair. But it also comes cased in a courtroom drama that drags, and a lot of time spent with Dick Cheney. Don't get me wrong, Ed Holmes well deserves his kudos for nailing the absurdity of our vice president. There are many easy shots at Cheney, including a subplot about his quest to boost his popularity. Such distractions are fun for a time — and make the call for all of us to step up and do our part — but ultimately lose their punch. Through Sept. 29 at parks and other public sites across the Bay Area. Tickets are free; call 285-1717 or visit (M.R.) Reviewed July 18.

Romeo and Juliet. Woman's Will, the Bay Area's all-female Shakespeare company, performs their shows outdoors at parks throughout the Bay Area in order to make their work more accessible. At a recent performance in Oakland's Dimond Park, most audience members sat on blankets, many with small children; a few passersby stopped to watch. At one point, a bearded homeless guy even rode across the stage on a bicycle. Despite the relaxed outdoor atmosphere, the actors and director displayed a finely tuned understanding of the text that Shakespeare enthusiasts will appreciate. Marilet Martinez is an impassioned and fiery Romeo and has great contrast to Cassie Powell's sweetheart of a Juliet. Sharon Huff, meanwhile, plays Capulet with a Tony Soprano-esque control over his family. Director Erin Merritt brings a ritualistic beauty to the end of the show, using a gong-like sound and unspoken montage to represent the scenes from Juliet's ingestion of the false poison to Paris' entrance to the tomb. In the face of the enduring relevance of Shakespeare's canon, the dearth of truly great women's roles is stifling for the overwhelmingly female acting world. Woman's Will bravely takes Elizabethan tradition and flips it inside out. But, hey, the Bard is into cross-dressing characters; and this production proves that girls can do it just as well with pants and a swagger as Will and Co. did with wigs and falsetto. Through Aug. 12 at various Bay Area locations. There is no cost for admission. For information call 510-420-0813, or visit (Nara Dahlbacka). Reviewed Aug. 1.

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