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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. 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, 2006.

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.

Gonzo: A Brutal Chrysalis. If you're looking for the fun-loving and hilariously drug-addled Hunter S. Thompson portrayed on-screen by Johnny Depp and Bill Murray, you'll be surprised and uncomfortably mystified by this one-man performance about the founder of gonzo journalism. On a marvelously trashy stage depicting Thompson's Woody Creek, Colo., bunker — littered with typewriters, guns, and liquor — an actor and writer credited only as B. Duke (I suppose a tribute to Thompson's pseudonym Raoul Duke) spends two hours spitting out angry, bile-filled rants about the death of the American Dream. Instead of rehashing Thompson's famous misadventures with the Hell's Angels or the hallucinogenic paranoia detailed in his classic novel Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, B. Duke — and producer and director C. Duke (that's right) — focus on Thompson's radical, power-to-the-freaks politics. There's no letup (or variance) in the machine-gun outbursts about Nixon, mass media, "freak power," and Thompson's inspired run for sheriff of Aspen. Gonzois an interesting look at a lesser-seen side of the counter-culture icon, but the performance feels like a reckless, all-out verbal assault. The theater's concession stand sells cheap whiskey and balloons filled with nitrous oxide, and the gunshots onstage feel dangerous and deafening. But perhaps, Hollywood sheen aside, this show is a truer look at the man who reinvented modern alternative journalism. Through Jan. 27 at the Climate Theater, 285 Ninth St. (between Howard and Folsom), S.F. Tickets are $20; visit www.climatetheater.com. (Nathaniel Eaton) Reviewed Jan. 10.

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