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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 www.zspace.org. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed Jan. 3.

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. 14 at the Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby (at Martin Luther King Jr.), Berkeley. Tickets are $15-30; call (510) 841-6500 or visit www.shotgunplayers.org. (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 www.poststreettheatre.com. (Molly Rhodes) Reviewed Jan. 3.

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 www.menopausethemusical.com. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed Jan. 11, 2006.

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