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* Cabaret - The Mechanic Theatre. Lea Thompson stars as Sally Bowles in the acclaimed Kander and Ebb musical. Opens Tuesday. 410/752-1200.

* Charming & Rose - The Theatre Conspiracy. A fairy tale with Prince Charming, Princess Rose and some surprising twists and turns. Opens tonight at D.C. Arts Center. 202/462-7833.

* Undesirable Elements - Gala Hispanic Theatre. Ping Chong's piece exploring the effects of history, culture and ethnicity on individuals and the essence of being "other" in society. Opens tonight. 202/234-7174.


* Betty's Summer Vacation - Studio Theatre Secondstage - (THREE STARS). Christopher Durang's marvelously demented play has more bile than a bad frozen margarita and at times feels like one long hot day at the beach, but you nearly split your thong laughing at Mr. Durang's lunatic humor. Director J.R. Sullivan keeps the hilarity at a vertiginous pitch. The play's one-flip flop-on-the-banana-peel premise centers on Betty (Holly Twyford), a chipper sort who consents to share a summer rental with a group of strangers. Much of it is wildly, tastelessly funny - from the seemingly endless arsenal of one-liners and nutty reactions, to James Kronzer's flawlessly generic beach house set and Neil McFadden's wittily burbly sitcom score. The play self-destructs when Mr. Durang tacks on a rant about America's obsession with tabloid journalism, sensational newsmagazine shows, Court TV, celebrities and the voyeuristic media. Through June 24. 202/332-3300. Reviewed by Jayne M. Blanchard.

* Blue - Arena Stage's Kreeger Theater - (FOUR STARS). Charles Randolph-Wright's wise, affectionate look at the Southern black bourgeoisie. "Blue" is told from the perspective of Reuben (Brandon Troy McMickens as the young Reuben, Michael Wiggins as the adult), a pampered and favorite son with a henpecked older brother, Sam (Howard W. Overshown). Reuben begins the play as a restless 12-year-old trapped in the disco '70s and ends as a young man in the '90s. But the play belongs to his mother, Peggy (Phylicia Rashad), a stylish whirlwind. If Tennessee Williams had gotten his consciousness raised, he might have come up with a creation like Peggy Clark. The only time Peggy melts is when she hears the music of "Blue" Williams (Arnold McCuller ), a buttercream crooner. As we get into Act 2, we discover that Blue's hold over Peggy is not exclusively aural. She has a secret as well, one that does not make her much different from the trashy LaTonya, Sam's hottie girlfriend. Through June 18. 202/488-3300. Reviewed by Jayne M. Blanchard.

* Julius Caesar - Aquila Theatre Company - (THREE STARS). Stagings of "Julius Caesar" can sometimes be a bunch of men in togas pontificating about the glories of the Roman Republic. This tends to make you almost grateful when Caesar gets stabbed. No chance of that with this tough, dynamic production by Aquila, the only professional British-American touring theater troupe. Set in the modern dress of the socialist-inflected 1930s, this is a very lean production, with not much waste anywhere. That also goes for the actors, who make the stage seem full at all times even though the company has only seven members. So convincingly has this company conveyed the craziness of political plots that are ostensibly for the good of the people that you start believing Rome will be in ruins until the conspirators get their due. The whole second act is something of a letdown after the engulfing blaze of the first half. But the immediacy and fire of the Aquila Company makes this one of the most exciting and passionate productions of "Julius Caesar" seen in a long time. Through June 4 at the Elizabethan Theatre, Folger Shakespeare Library. 202/544-7077. Reviewed by Jayne M. …