Cassandra Marie Nuss, Daniel Trump, and Zach Powell in Dracula The scariest thing about the Timber Lake Playhouse's world-premiere production of Dracula is the set, and I mean that as a compliment. Designed by Joseph C. Heitman, the industrial playing space includes a series of metallic walkways with perilous inclines, some 20 feet above the floor, and the walkways themselves are slightly askew. The best way I can describe Dracula's architecture is by saying that, if the set were an amusement-park attraction, you'd be both ecstatic and petrified about riding it.

Jaci Entwisle & Jack Kloppenborg in "The Threepenny Opera" During Bertolt Brecht's The Threepenny Opera - the German dramatist's revolutionary musical-comedy collaboration with composer Kurt Weill - we're meant to feel uneasy. With its cast of beggars and rogues, obliteration of the fourth wall, and refusal to cater to conventional audience expectation (the songs here, devoid of proper finales, don't so much finish as stop), The Threepenny Opera is a fascinating, deliberately alienating piece. Our enjoyment stems from how unconventional the show is, but in no traditional sense are we meant to simply like it.

So in regard to director Corinne Johnson's Depression-era Threepenny Opera that recently opened St. Ambrose University's 2006-7 theatre season at the Galvin Fine Arts Center (and closed on October 15), was it a failing or a blessing that so many of its performers were so damned likable?

Ben Affleck and Diane Lane in HollywoodlandHOLLYWOODLAND

Against all expectation, the most touching performance in current releases is probably Ben Affleck's turn as George Reeves in the Tinseltown drama Hollywoodland. Director Allen Coulter's work centers around the mysterious shooting death of the famed Superman star of '50s television, and Affleck is just about perfect here. Seen in flashbacks, he plays Reeves' heartrending rise and fall with the abashed sweetness of a man who knows his good looks and moderate talent will only carry him so far, and Affleck's strong, subtle turn is effortlessly moving. And as trophy wife Tony Mannix, Diane Lane nearly matches him, suggesting entire generations of women carelessly tossed away by Hollywood's obsession with youth and beauty; Hollywoodland's tragedy is hers as much as Reeves', and the emotionally naked Lane turns in a fierce, brave portrayal.

"Urinetown" ensemble In the second act of the magnificent musical parody Urinetown, the character of Bobby Strong - a novice revolutionary, and the show's ostensible leading man - sings "Run, Freedom, Run," a rousing call-to-arms to his fellow oppressed. The number, a sort of "Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat" from Guys & Dolls as seen through a Les Miserables filter, is one of those guaranteed show-stoppers designed to leave audiences cheering. At the Timber Lake Playhouse's Saturday-night performance of the show, however, this production number led to something even more thrilling.

How wonderful and humbling the last eight months have been.

In the Clinton Area Showboat Theatre's ingenious new production of Beauty & the Beast, the first things to catch your eye are a small bench located stage right and a large screen - it's nearly half the length of the stage - hanging upstage. On that screen is a rear projection of a rose, and it has a haunting, rough-edged quality; it looks like something that French waif on the Les Miz poster should be holding.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame, currently being presented at the Timber Lake Playhouse, is a little bit Jesus Christ Superstar, a little bit Frank Wildhorn, and a whole lotta Les Miserables, but it has a narrative structure and momentum that's all its own, and it's continually surprising - I can't recall the last time I felt so alert at the theatre. (It helps that this musical adaptation of Victor Hugo's novel is unfamiliar to most of us, having been produced only once before - at the Drury Lane Oakbrook Theatre - in 1994, and having gone through extensive revision since then.)

Colin Firth and Renee Zellweger in Bridget Jones: The Edge of ReasonBRIDGET JONES: THE EDGE OF REASON

I have a friend who does a bit based on a seminal Laverne & Shirley gag. In nearly every episode of that sitcom, one of the titular characters would say, "There's no way this situation could get worse!" or "What's that smell?" and Lenny and Squiggy would cluelessly burst through Laverne's and Shirley's door; if someone around us says something like "That's the ugliest thing I've ever seen!" my friend will mime a door opening and exclaim, with perfect greaser-nerd cadence, "Hello!" That gag is pure sitcom-honed irony - that is, obvious irony - and Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason, the follow-up to 2001's Bridget Jones's Diary, is like a continuous loop of that Lenny and Squiggy routine.