Few stage sights are as thrilling as a cast of genuinely hungry actors, especially when they have genuinely meaty material to tear into. My Verona Productions' Closer is a biting, at times painful, piece, yet it's suffused with joy; the actors seem to be relishing the opportunity to verbally claw, scrape, and expose (often self-inflicted) wounds.

I hate The Sound of Music, but on some level, doesn't everyone? The sugar-coated sensibility, the repetitive songs we know far too well, the Julie Andrews wannabes trilling with relentless cheeriness, the use of Nazis as a pesky, simplistic plot device ... . I know that the show is an assured cash cow for producers, but many of us would be happy for the book and score to disappear until the show's hundredth anniversary in 2059. (I'll be dead by then, right?)

I've watched numerous comedies at the Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse over the past decade, and I've never seen one that I thought would be offensive to most 80-year-olds. But until Oh Mama! No Papa!, I'd never seen a comedy that would be offensive to everyone but 80-year-olds.

Moss Hart & George S. Kaufman's 1938 comedy You Can't Take It with You is so sturdy and reliably entertaining that it doesn't take much more than a mediocre version of it to make audiences happy. The current production at the Richmond Hill Barn Theatre is significantly better than mediocre - vibrantly played and almost consistently pleasurable - but what's completely surprising is the cleverness and skill behind Vicki Deusinger's staging of it.

From first scene to last, New Ground Theatre's production of Boston Marriage is an almost total misreading of David Mamet's 1999 work. As usual, New Ground's decision to tackle offbeat and challenging material is commendable, but its latest offering is so wrong-headed in execution that it makes you understand why audiences often shy away from the offbeat and challenging.

Melissa McBain's drama Altar Call, currently playing at Playcrafters' Barn Theatre, is beautifully unresolved. There are many fine elements in this production - along with some not-so-fine ones - yet I was impressed by McBain's willingness to let the drama linger after its close. She introduces potentially volatile subject matter such as adultery, homosexuality, and the dogmatic elements of scripture, yet doesn't attempt to provide easy answers to the play's complexities.

Since 1990, I've attended more than 25 plays at Augustana College, yet I've never seen one that made better use of the Potter Hall stage than The Laramie Project.

Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, which recently closed St. Ambrose University's 2004-5 theatre season, is a tough play to produce effectively at the collegiate level: How do you present Tom Stoppard's mordantly funny rumination on mortality and the meaninglessness of existence with performers this young?

So far as I know, there are no steadfast rules regarding children's theatre, but two certain "don't"s would have to be: (1) Don't bore the kids, and (2) Don't confuse the kids.

Chief among many surprises in Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse's current production of The King & I is the re-discovery of just how funny the show is. For many, myself included, the news of another Rodgers & Hammerstein revival is enough to fill you with trepidation; must we sit through one of their timeless extravaganzas yet again? But it's easy to forget that this theatrical duo is legendary for good reason. Beyond their undeniable musical talents, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein wrote strong, well-constructed shows and empathetic characters, and their productions always feature an intriguing, nearly treacherous dark side; Rodgers & Hammerstein felt no compunction about casually killing off major characters. (Every time I see The Sound of Music I have to remind myself: Oh, right. There are Nazis in this.) And although I'd be content to never see South Pacific again, a recent, invigorating production of Rodgers & Hammerstein's State Fair at Assumption High School was a welcome reminder of the duo's gifts, and Circa '21's The King & I is fantastically fine, engaging and memorable and, to a quite unexpected degree, hilarious.

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