Our critics weigh in on local theater

The African Company Presents Richard III. New York City, 1821. The American theater is barely 50 years old, and -- shock, horror -- a group of ex-slaves dares to perform the work of the Bard. Based on true events, Carlyle Brown's The African Company Presents Richard IIItells the story of the struggles of the first African-American theater troupe in the country. When the African Company audaciously presents an all-black production of Shakespeare's Richard IIInext door to a star-studded opening-night performance of the same play by an established white company, its actors get thrown in prison and the company grows up fast. Fluidly blending Shakespeare's language with that of the African-American vernacular of the day, Brown's script, with its social, political, and artistic message, is an intriguing, if laborious, portrait of America's early theatrical history. All five members of the charismatic cast give flowing, lyrical performances, but their efforts are undermined by the play's ponderous pace and some arrhythmic direction. Through March 20 at the Buriel Clay Theater, African-American Art & Culture Complex, 762 Fulton (at Webster), S.F. Tickets are $20-30; call 762-2071 or visit www.african-americanshakes.org. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed March 9.

Bay One-Acts Festival. If the three plays that make up Program 2 of the fourth annual Bay One-Acts Festival are anything to go by, the entire event presents a colorful (if patchy) mix. The night I went, the opener, Pancakes for Dinner -- a diminutive but perfectly proportioned two-person piece about the relationship between a teenager and her dad's girlfriend -- was my favorite. Ianna Sobel matches shyness with brashness as the gauche teenage pancake-maker, Jen, providing relief to Michaela Greely's vulgarly charismatic Alice. Vince Montague's bite-size play, with its funny yet moving banter, flips between light and dark like an expertly tossed ... well, you know. Next on the agenda was Ed Brownson's The Dictionary Play. A brainy sendup of postmodernist stagecraft, the comedy features two actors, A (Fred Pitts) and Z (Julie Cleland), trying to perform a piece called The Dictionary Playand getting themselves (and the audience) tied up in metatheatrical knots while they're at it. Though Pitts and Cleland make a good double act, the work itself feels rather self-indulgent: Luigi Pirandello's 1921 Six Characters in Search of an Author covers similar territory with more insight. When Josh Googled Susan, the final play of the evening, is a cute story about finding love in cyberspace. Josh (Max Bernstein) and Susan (Jacqueline Hillman), two lonely hearts, get together despite their respective parents' incredulity and initial misgivings. Although Elliott Kopstein's drama feels slow and repetitive at times and some of its characters seem clichéd, Googledhas its heart in the right place. The BOA Festival runs through March 20 at the Eureka Theatre, 215 Jackson (between Battery and Front), S.F. Tickets are $17-20; call 776-7427 or visit www.threewisemonkeys.org. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed March 9.

I Look Like an Egg, But I Identify as a Cookie. In her solo show, Heather Gold recounts the journey from Niagara Falls (where she spent the first 19 years of her life) to her current role as San Francisco's resident lesbian domestic goddess -- while baking a batch of chocolate chip cookies in front of a live audience. Even as she's plunking bits of soggy dough onto a battered metal baking tray and babbling on about her rugby-playing days as a law student at Yale, Gold, wielding her remarkable improvisation skills, creates an atmosphere of cozy intimacy. Certain parts of her monologue ramble on for too long, but even during the show's most half-baked moments, it's easy to understand why the audience gets so involved: Gold makes for an endearingly slapdash cook. Each performance involves a special guest, and it's a sheer pleasure to see a food-themed show that's not about battling one's body image (as is so often the case with productions by female artists -- e.g., Eve Ensler's The Good Body) and a program stuffed with recipes for delicacies like gingersnaps and caramel chocolate squares. Through March 28 at Hotel Rex, 562 Sutter (between Powell and Mason), S.F. Tickets are $30-50; call (800) 838-3006 or visit www.subvert.com. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed Jan. 12.

Monster. The blessing (or, depending on how you look at it, the curse) of Mary Shelley's novel Frankenstein is its open-endedness. The author's refusal to pass moral judgment upon Victor Frankenstein and his monster is largely responsible for the avalanche of adaptations the work has inspired since its publication almost 200 years ago. SF Playhouse's production of Monster, a recent makeover of the legend by Obie Award-winning playwright Neal Bell, centers on a twentysomething Frankenstein (Jason Frazier), conceived as a thoroughly Romantic hero with a spindly frame, cascading blond hair, tortured features, and a penchant for persecuting household pets. Between the faux-Gothic melodrama of director Bill English's mise-en-scène and Bell's yuk-yuk sense of humor, Monster moves as if with a clubfoot. Instead of creating a sense of wild spoof through the marriage of melodrama and slapstick, as Mel Brooks did so successfully in his 1974 movie Young Frankenstein, the play presents moments of horror-style tension that fall flat. Monster is entertaining, but there's little to make it stand out from the avalanche. Through March 19 at SF Playhouse, 536 Sutter (between Powell and Mason), S.F. Tickets are $30; call 677-9596 or visit www.sfplayhouse.org. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed Feb. 23.

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