TO BE or not to be is hardly the most pertinent question concerning Bay Area theater in the good ol' summertime.

No, the real question is shorts or a parka? And given the weirdness of this year's weather, you might consider bringing an umbrella or a poncho just in case.

It's July already, and the outdoor theater season is upon us. California Shakespeare Theater's first show, "Othello," closes Sunday, and the first half of the two-part "Nicholas Nickleby" epic waits nervously in the wings.

This is also the weekend when the free touring park shows kick into gear.

The San Francisco Mime Troupe's "Doing Good" premieres at San Francisco's Dolores Park on Saturday, and the San Francisco Shakespeare Festival's "Much Ado About Nothing" makes its official bow on Saturday in Pleasanton.

The big news with SF Shakes is the addition of a new venue on the touring park circuit. In addition to playing in Pleasanton, Cupertino, Oakland and San Francisco, "Much Ado" will also stop in San Mateo's Central Park for the first time.

One of Shakespeare's wittiest and most romantic comedies, "Much Ado" is about the disruption of young love between Hero (Sofia Ahmad) and Claudio (Michael Navarra) by the brooding bad guy Don Pedro (Marvin Greene).

The young lovers are as interesting as young lovers can be, but the real juice in the play comes from bickering paramours Beatrice and Benedick, two longtime acquaintances who can't quite admit they're hooked on one another.

Julia Brothers, who has given fantastic performances in the Magic Theatre's "Triptych" and the TheatreWorks/Brava "Nickel and Dimed," makes her SF Shakes debut as Beatrice, and SF Shakes veteran Stephen Klum ("Love's Labour's Lost," "Twelfth Night") is Benedick.

"Much Ado About Nothing" continues through July 10 at Amador Community Park, Santa Rita Road at Black Avenue, Pleasanton.

Shows are at 7:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. The tour continues July 16-31 at Memorial Park in Cupertino; Aug. 6-14 at Central Park in San Mateo; Aug. 20-28 at Lakeside Park in Oakland; and Sept. 3-24 at the Presidio in San Francisco.

Call (415) 422-2222 or visit http://www.sfshakes.org for information.

Mime Troupe does 'Good'

For the first time in nearly a decade, the San Francisco Mime Troupe is getting serious. The knockabout political farces of the last few summers are being replaced by a show with a little more on its mind than entertaining the hippies at heart who fill Bay Area parks at Mime Troupe shows.

"We wanted to take a leap this year and challenge our audiences," says longtime SF Mime Troupe member Michael Sullivan. "The show is less a comedy than it is a drama with comedy and music. But this isn't a permanent shift. We're not suddenly becoming the Outdoor Drama Theater.

We just don't want to be predictable."

The show is "Doing Good," and it was inspired by John Perkins' "Confessions of an Economic Hit Man."

"All of us in the collective felt it was an important book because it delves into history to answer the question: Why does the world hate us?" Sullivan says.

Joan Holden, a mainstay at the Mime Troupe for many years who is no longer a member of the collective, returns as dramaturg and is working with a writing team that includes Keiko Shimosato, Ellen Callas, Erin Blackwell and Jeffrey Morris.

Berkeley's Noah James Butler, a familiar face to Impact Theatre and TheatreFirst audiences, plays James, an idealistic American who, in 1968, joins the Peace Corps to change the world and is disillusioned by how little he is actually able to accomplish.

"That's when James turns to his wife's uncle who runs a giant corporation that works to bypass governments and simply build road and hydroelectric dams in developing countries," Butler says.

"But what James doesn't understand at first is that what he's doing has major repercussions for these countries and their cultures and economies."

Idealism corrupted by capitalism and profit making disguised as spreading democracy are major themes that emerge from "Doing Good," whose story spans the globe from Boston to Ecuador to Indonesia to Iran. 

This is Butler's first time performing in a park setting, and he faces the double challenge of simply acting amid uncontrollable elements (weather, traffic noise, dogs, bugs in your mouth) and making a realistic drama — not a farce — communicate from the stage.

"There are some moments in the play that need to be quiet, but how do you do that outside?" Butler asks. "We're still figuring that out."

Sullivan adds that this is one of the challenges that made the notion of doing a serious show so appealing.

"How do you make realistic moments and make them big enough for the people way at the back of the park and not completely overacted for the people in the front row?" Sullivan says. "It's all about keeping the truth but making it big."

Thought-provoking political theater about serious international issues may not be what summer audiences are expecting, but Butler says he's thrilled to be part of something that asks audiences to use their brains.

"It becomes a lot more than simply doing your job when you can move someone to get up and take action or even if you just make them think," he says. "I can't remember the last time I left a theater thinking."

"Doing Good" opens Saturday with shows at 2 p.m. Saturday, Sunday and Monday at Dolores Park, 18th and Dolores streets, San Francisco. The tour continues through Sept. 5. Next weekend the show is at 2 p.m. at Cedar Rose Park, 1300 Rose St., Berkeley. Call (415) 285-1717 or visit http://www.sfmt.org for complete tour schedule.

More summer shows

Other shows of interest this season include:

-Woman's Will, the all-female Shakespeare company, opens a free touring park version of "Richard III" July 9-10 and July 16-17 at Berkeley's John Hinkel Park. The tour continues through Aug. 14 with stops in Oakland, Walnut Creek, Hayward, Pleasanton, Mountain View and San Francisco. Call (510) 420-0813 or visit http://www.womanswill.org.

-Woodminster Summer Musicals 2005 opens the "musicals under the stars" season July 8 with a classic: "Oklahoma!" Next up is "Hello, Dolly!" Aug. 5-14 followed by "Jesus Christ Superstar" Sept. 2-11. Call (510) 531-9597 or visit http://www.woodminster.com.

-Shotgun Players' annual outdoor production is a little long in the nose this year. Edmond Rostand's "Cyrano de Bergerac" (translated by Charles Marowitz) opens July 23 and continues on Saturdays and Sundays at Berkeley's John Hinkel Park through Aug. 28. Call (510) 841-6500 or visit http://www.shotgunplayers.org.

-Valley Shakespeare Festival returns to the Retzlaff Winery in Livermore with a production of "As You Like It" July 22-Aug. 13. Now in its fourth year, the festival provides a choice opportunity to combine wine and well-produced whimsy. Call (925) 556-9624 or visit http://www.valleyshakes.org.

-John Muir Festival 2005 includes this weekend's "Celebrate Independence!" concert as well as productions of "The Sound of Music" (July 13-31) and "John Muir's Mountain Days" (Aug. 4-7) all at the John Muir Amphitheater in Martinez. Call (925) 798-1300 or visit http://www.muirfest.org.

If you have theater news or questions, you can contact Chad Jones at cjones@angnewspapers.com or call (925) 416-4853.