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Our critics weigh in on local theater

"365 Days/365 Plays." One morning in 2002, playwright Suzan-Lori Parks decided to write a play every day for the next year. Covering everything from the war in Iraq to the death of Johnny Cash to a lost sweater, Parks' cycle is a remarkable, audacious achievement. Even though the ideas didn't always flow (as titles like Going Through the Motions and This Is Shit suggest), the pieces (at least on paper) are constantly playful, occasionally dark, and frequently challenging. At their best, they are all three at once. Now, Parks' 365 days are coming 'round again thanks to theater companies all over the U.S., which are staging the works in an enormous, logistically terrifying festival. By Nov. 12, 2007, more than 700 groups will have performed each piece in the cycle. Given the Bay Area's affinity for the lunatic fringe, it's no surprise to see local artists treating Parks' plays like the madcap circus acts they are. Tactics so far have been radically different from company to company. During opening week last November, for example, the Z Space Studio mounted the first seven dramas at Potrero Hill Neighborhood House. Despite being underscored by clanking, didgeridoo-laced sound art and quasi-spiritual dance interludes, the performance exploited Parks' acerbic sense of humor to the fullest. Ten Red Hen took a more improvisatory approach in Week 4, performing the plays in a variety of private residences, with audience members drafted on the fly. It's easy to denounce such an apparently lawless undertaking as being gimmicky and under-rehearsed. But no matter how haphazardly the plays are staged, the combination of Parks' imprimatur and the careening imaginations of the groups involved inspires confidence and hope that transcends skepticism. Through Nov. 12 at locations throughout the Bay Area. All shows are free to the public; call 437-6775 or visit (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed Jan. 3.

43 Plays for 43 Presidents. There are numerous problems inherent in writing short plays about every single president of the United States and compressing them into one night of theater. For the great, notorious, and prolific leaders in this production, a three-minute play becomes a recitation of acts passed and deeds done. For the obscure and forgettable ones (the majority, unfortunately), the short vignettes feel, as their terms in office suggest, unremarkable. The local cast of five (highlighted by the excellent dry humor of Joshua Pollock) employs endless performance styles for each president's moment in the spotlight. Lincoln speaks by candlelight, Madison with large cue cards, (Chester) Arthur via a game show; others are conveyed by stabbing balloons, hosting roasts, and eating Wonder Bread. For Kennedy, it's simply television footage offering tearful accounts of his assassination. Presidents works as a lively (if hurried) historical summary of our country as told through those we popularly elected — and the few we didn't. (In case you're wondering, George W. Bush's segment has him in a blindfold with a baseball bat.) The assemblage doesn't result in a night of emotionally connected theater, but this doesn't mean the show wouldn't be a smash hit in history classrooms. Through Jan. 27 at Impact Theatre, 1834 Euclid (at Hearst, under LaVal's Subterranean Pizza), Berkeley. Tickets are $15-35; call (510) 499-0356 or visit (Nathaniel Eaton) Reviewed Jan. 10.

Duck Soup. Do you like your theater emotionally resonant with subtle yet piercing social and political insights that would give Tom Stoppard pause? Then neither this show nor really anything else that graces the Dark Room's minuscule stage is right for you. But if you're looking for a downright silly 80 minutes of crude jokes, cruder slapstick, and punch lines you can literally shout along with by the show's end, then this adaptation of the Marx Brothers' movie classic might just be your ticket. Sure, the acting can be spotty — although Gerri Lawlor is a standout as the silent Harpo — and the directing aesthetic appears to be "stand on this side or that side and say your lines." And yes, the writers should have taken even more liberties with their adaptation and given the audience additional opportunities to talk back to the stage. Yet if you're willing to leave your inner thespian at the door and throw yourself into the cheesy, homespun spirit of the thing, you will likely find yourself hollering and chuckling along. Through Jan. 28 at the Dark Room, 2263 Mission (between 18th and 19th sts.), S.F. Tickets are $15; call 401-7987 or visit (Molly Rhodes) Reviewed Jan. 10.

The Forest War. Set in an ancient Asiatic fiefdom, playwright-director Mark Jackson's epic story about an essentially virtuous leader whose dalliance with a subordinate leads to a regime change and a crusade (helmed by the bloodthirsty son of a former ruler) to gain control over natural resources contains many parallels with recent U.S. history. The reason Jackson gets away with his heavy-handed allegory is because he's such a compelling storyteller. Jackson drives his epic plot along with muscular, bewitching prose. The characters, though largely symbolic, are sharply drawn. The evil Lord Kain (a praying mantislike Kevin Clarke) leaps off the stage with his venomous plans. Meanwhile, the good Lord Kulan's battle with his conscience (a sympathetic yet tortured Cassidy Brown) makes the hero seem deeply human. By blending characteristics of kabuki — such as heavily stylized movements, elaborate makeup and costumes, and black-clad stage "assistants" (or "kurogo") — with occidental ideas (such as fierce, mood-shifting lighting effects and western musical instruments), Jackson creates a physical environment that flawlessly encapsulates his theme: the simultaneous dissonance and harmony between two very different ways of being. The Forest War weaves a tale that's as old as the trees, yet it still feels like a spring sapling. Through Jan. 28 at the Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby (at Martin Luther King Jr.), Berkeley. Tickets are $15-30; call (510) 841-6500 or visit (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed Dec. 20.

Forever Tango. The 12-year-old showcase of Argentinean dancing and musical bravura is showing signs of age in its third trip through San Francisco. Oh, yes, the skills of the dancers remain awe-inspiring, and the band — consisting of not one, not two, but four bandoneons (think accordion, only sexier) — is as fabulous as ever. But perhaps when you've danced the same dance with the same choreography for more than a decade, your passionate connection with your partner, which makes the tango (as the show's creator, Luis Bravo, describes it), "so much more than just a dance," starts to fray at the edges. That connection can still be seen, usually in a fleeting pause, as partners lean into one another; at such times, you can believe that it is their desire for each other, and not the footwork they've expertly performed thousands of times, that leads them to what happens next. These moments, though all too rare in this current tour, are the heart of both the dance and this show, and are still something to behold. Through Jan. 21 at Post Street Theatre, 450 Post (at Mason), S.F. Tickets are $55-75; call 771-6900 or visit (Molly Rhodes) Reviewed Jan. 3.

Luma. At the beginning of this theatrical celebration of lighting effects, creative director Marlin (a juggler and comedian by background, who drops his first name, Michael, when in showbiz mode) comes out dressed in tight-fitting black velvet pants and matching top. He proceeds to perform, for no apparent reason, a few fairly nondescript stunts involving orange balls, hoops, and pieces of luminous green string. He cracks a few self-deprecating jokes. Then he goes away, leaving us wondering if we've wandered into the wrong theater. When the houselights finally go down, we're faced with a series of brief, mostly unrelated, episodes, staged in the dark around various light-sources, such as LEDs, chemical luminescence, and neon. Black-clothed performers dance around in rough formation, wielding a variety of props (luminous balls, rings, ropes, geometric shapes, oversized spongy fish, etc.) in time to music. Some of the individual effects in Luma are striking. There's something sweetly meditative about watching small blue balls bobbing about in the blackness, or giant white silk sails reflecting colorful, patterned stage lights. But it's not long before the endless parade of seemingly random staccato scenes becomes monotonous. Lacking any real fireworks, Luma fails to ignite. Through Jan. 19 at Victoria Theatre, 2961 16th St. (between Mission and Capp), S.F. Tickets are $5-30; call 863-7576 or visit (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed Jan. 10.

Menopause the Musical. Set in Bloomingdale's department store, this play unites four contrasting female characters — an Iowa housewife, an executive, a soap star, and a hippie — through the combined forces of cut-price lingerie and hormone replacement therapy. Singing doctored versions of 1960s and '70s pop favorites like "Stayin' Alive" ("Stayin' Awake") and "Puff, the Magic Dragon" ("Puff, My God I'm Draggin'"), the ladies potter from floor to floor, sharing their worst menopausal hang-ups as they try on clothes, rifle through sales racks, and run in and out of the store's many strategically placed powder rooms. Although Menopause is entertaining and energetically performed, it's unabashedly tacky. An ode to the delights of masturbation, sung down a pink microphone to an adaptation of the Beach Boys' "Good Vibrations," for instance, makes one think that all that's missing from this (very) belated bachelorette party is a male stripper. And as much as the show makes its largely 40-plus female audience feel more comfortable about getting older, it doesn't go far enough. Menopause is euphemistically referred to as "the change," which just seems to reinforce taboos. And its obsession with shopping, sex, and cellulite makes Menopause feel a lot like a geriatric issue of Cosmo. Rather than empowering women, the musical ends up underscoring clichés. In an open-ended run at Theatre 39, Pier 39, Beach & Embarcadero, S.F. Tickets are $46.50; call 433-3939 or visit (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed Jan. 11.

Shopping! The Musical. Some theater types want to be Hamlet; others want to be Liza Minnelli. The smiling, hardworking performers in this new musical revue definitely fall into the latter category. Lyricist-composer Morris Bobrow uses his infectious, irreverent humor to great effect as he pays homage to the highs and lows of our compellingly crass commercial culture. He uses the small, cramped theater in a straightforward manner — four center-stage stools and an amusing backdrop provide the set. The accomplished accompanist Ben Keim keeps things lively on one side of the stage behind an upright piano. The actors lead us through songs that bring to mind Jerry Seinfeld's sharp observations on mundane modern life: "Shopping in Style" extols the virtues of Costco, and "Serious Shopping" imagines a man trying to buy lettuce from a riotously over-the-top grocery cult. The musical runs just over an hour, yet it still has a few rough spots. The mid-show sketch "Checking Out" gives us a limp comedic premise that we've seen before on sub-par sitcoms, and the piece "5 & 10" is a mix of awkward nostalgia and pitch problems. Nevertheless, this is a clever collection of tunes performed with an unabashedly cheesy enthusiasm that would make Liza proud. In an open-ended run at the Shelton Theater, 533 Sutter (between Powell and Mason), S.F. Tickets are $25-29; call (800) 838-3006 or visit (Frank Wortham) Reviewed June 14.

The Anthony Newley Project
Empire Plush Room, York Hotel, 940 Sutter (at Hyde), 885-2800.
Bakla Show
Bindlestiff Studio, 185 Sixth St. (at Howard), 974-1167.
Beckett in Winter
Off-Market Theater, 965 Mission (at Fifth St.), 896-6477.
Death of a Salesman
Actors Theatre San Francisco, 533 Sutter (at Powell), 296-9179.
Emperor Norton, The Musical
Shelton Theater, 533 Sutter (at Powell), 433-1226.
Farm Boys
New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness (at Market), 861-8972.
Jersey Boys
Curran Theatre, 445 Geary (between Taylor and Mason), 551-2000.
The Magnificence of the Disaster
The Marsh, 1062 Valencia (at 22nd St.), 826-5750.
The Merry Widow
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Forum, 701 Mission (at Third St.), 978-ARTS.
Strangers We Know
Magic Theatre, Fort Mason, Bldg. D, Marina & Buchanan, 441-8822.
Women on the Way Festival
Dance Mission Theater, 3316 24th St. (at Mission), 826-4401.


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