The Nerd at Playcrafters Barn Theatre Through September 25

As the lights come up on Playcrafters' production of Larry Shue's The Nerd, we find ourselves in the Terre Haute, Indiana, living room of architect Willum Cubbert (Josh Kahn), whose pseudo-girlfriend, Tansy (Jessica Nicol), and drama-critic friend, Axel (Chris White), are throwing him a surprise birthday party. For about 20 minutes, the three characters chat, and all the while, the light from the evening sky - seen through Willum's living-room windows in the rear of the stage - is going through the most amazing transformation. The reddish-pink hues from outside begin to subtly shift to a lovely magenta, and within time, they will have morphed into a deep, midnight blue with a hint of purple; it's a beautiful, subtle effect, well-achieved by designer Jennifer Kingry.

At Friday's nearly sold-out performance of Over the Tavern at Richmond Hill's Barn Theatre, I found myself seated next to a charming couple who engaged me in conversation. I asked whether they had heard of the play previously, as Tom Dudzick's comedy was unfamiliar to me. The gentleman responded that he'd read a little bit about it, but his wife said, "Not me. I like being surprised."

In all honesty, it might not be appropriate for me to critique the new production at the Timber Lake Playhouse, considering that at Saturday night's performance I was in it. Then again, we all were.

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.

As Belle, the heroine of the Quad City Music Guild's Beauty & the Beast, Jenny Winn is a complete cartoon, and I mean that in the best way possible. It's generally thrilling when performers deviate from the expectations associated with a well-known character, but playing a role exactly the way an audience expects it to be played has its own rewards, and in Beauty & the Beast, Winn gives such a flawless approximation of a living-and-breathing animated figure that you might find it impossible not to stare at her with a big, goofy grin plastered on your face.

The Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse enjoys a luxury that no other theatrical venues in the area do: Its productions, on average, run about eight weeks each, allowing good shows plenty of time to eventually become very, very good shows. Given this, I'm guessing that the theatre's latest offering, Pump Boys & Dinettes, will, by its closing night on September 17, end up ... fine.

In real time, a half-second isn't all that long - roughly the amount of time it takes to swallow - but, on stage, it's surprising how long it can feel.

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.)

Saturday's opening-night production of Aristophanes' The Knights, which closes Genesius Guild's summer season and runs through this weekend, began with a few words from Guild founder - and uncredited Knights scribe - Don Wooten, and it's hard to imagine the evening commencing on a more charming note.

Perhaps the biggest pleasure in attending an entire season of summer-stock theatre lies in the chance to see familiar faces in show after show. If a company's actors have impressed you in the past, just noticing their names in a new program is enough to make you smile, and I've now smiled throughout four consecutive shows at the Clinton Area Showboat Theatre (CAST). By this point, I'm so happy just seeing Katherine Walker Hill and Nicole Horton and Chris Amos and Craig Merriman and Patrick Stinson and Sandee Cunningham and Michael Oberfield and the rest of CAST's 2005 ensemble that it barely matters what show they're in; with actors this enjoyable, audiences are all but guaranteed to have a great time. (It's a wonderful argument for remaining faithful to a theatre ... and for purchasing season subscriptions.)

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