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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.

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. Presidentsworks 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 www.randt.org. (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 www.darkroomsf.com. (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 www.shotgunplayers.org. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed Dec. 20.

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