When you enter the Bay One Acts Festival, you might expect something like the SF Fringe Festival. Ten companies produce 10 one-act plays, and it's hard to know what to expect. It's adventurous theater-making and theatergoing. The artists all take risks, and some inevitably pay off more than others. But when you do witness success, the pleasure is more than just watching a good show; you feel like you're discovering exciting new artists.
That said, the Bay One Acts Festival is definitely not the Fringe. The 10 companies -- the Playwrights' Foundation, 11th Hour Ensemble, Threshold, San Francisco Theater Pub, PianoFight, Precarious Theater, Sleepwalkers Theatre, No Nude Men, Ragged Wing Ensemble, and Instrumental Theatre -- are all local. It's been said that the Bay Area theater scene is uniquely collaborative and supportive, and in the festival that sense of community is abundantly displayed. The directors, producers, playwrights, and actors clearly value each other and are deeply invested in one another's work.
That group ethic also translates into shared themes. While the 10 productions have vastly different styles and concerns, there does emerge a common interest in the stories of women. Sometimes it's estranged sisters, as in The Bird Trap, by Bennett Fisher. At others it's the struggle to conceive a child, as in Maybe Baby, written and directed by Amy Sass. Another, Erin Bregman's I.S.O. Explosive Possibility, is about a pair of academics trying to find the archetypal female story. In a world where larger theaters can tokenize women's stories at best and ignore them at worst, it's refreshing to see that local, indie theaters can take up the mantle.
Still, almost all the work presented here needs refining -- and in some cases, total revamping. But even with those plays, it's exciting to feel an active part of the artistic process. A few plays, however, offer much more to get excited about: the kind of work that doesn't just show potential but has already arrived. Out of the festival's 10 projects, these three should not be missed:
- The Seagull Project, imagined and directed by James Mayagoitia and Megan Trout of 11th Hour Ensemble, in Program 1. One of two physical-theater pieces in the festival, The Seagull Project makes a compelling case that the titanic characters from Chekhov's drama -- Konstantin, the despondent dramatist; Nina, the sought-after actress -- were really just closeted dancers yearning to break free. The seven-member ensemble finds a humorous, passionate, and bold physical vocabulary to express the overpowering emotions of Chekhov's idle rich. Unlike their inspiration, however, The Seagull Project is ultimately uplifting, even triumphant. Sam Jackson delivers a standout performance of Casey Robbins' "Night Fears," which she sings in a husky contralto and plays on the ukulele.
- Three Little Dumplings Go Bananas, by Megan Cohen and directed by Jessica Holt of Threshold, in Program 1. Cohen's dumplings (Sarah Moser, Molly Holcomb, and Megan Trout) were favorites at last year's festival, and it is lucky indeed that these pink-festooned, trash-talking "sacks of meat" have returned for 2012. Their little American family, complete with a Full House-obsessed, track suit-sporting, sandwich-inept dad (Myron Freedman), is in grotesque crisis: Mommies can be controlled by opening and closing the TV Guide, and sisters who think they're too smart can be locked in the bathroom. This production is gloriously theatrical, with flying sandwiches, breakdancing, and ground that's made of lava. But what truly elevates it is Cohen's language. In her voice, the profane sounds profound. She makes the phrase, "Shit'll get so cray-cray you'll poop in your freakin' socks," sound downright musical.
- A Game, by Christopher Chen and directed by Paul Cello of Instrumental Theatre, in Program 2. The lesbian couple in Chen's play should know better than to play the game of its title: to tell your partner your worst relationship fear and then have her pretend it's true. Yet they do, of course, and an effort to conquer fears turns into the inevitability of getting conquered by them. Chen's script has its weaknesses. It has a lot exposition that still doesn't explain things, and it takes a turn into a dream world that dissatisfies as an ending. But the superb performances of Ariane Owens and Charisse Loriaux should silence any quibbles with the writing. They are the Everycouple; their insecurities about affairs and not being interesting enough speak to the dull ache of anxiety familiar to almost anyone in a relationship. And when they pretend to confirm those fears, you can't help but wonder how much they're playacting. Each utterance, each breath in this most masochistic of games feels like a life-and-death move. Yet perversely, you almost want to play the game yourself.
The Bay One Acts Festival continues through May 12 at the Boxcar Theatre, 505 Natoma (at Sixth St.), S.F. Admission is $25-$45.