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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.

Emperor Norton the Musical. San Francisco has long been a haven for eccentrics. But even the most colorful of today's local characters, such as Pink Man and the Brown Twins pale in comparison to 19th-century San Francisco luminary Joshua A. Norton — failed businessman, friend to stray dogs, and self-proclaimed Emperor of the United States. Which is why lyricist Kim Ohanneson, composer Marty Axelrod, and director David Stein's collective impulse to create a musical out of Norton's made-for-the-stage narrative (and transfer it from the Dark Room Theater where the work received its premiere to the more tourist-friendly Shelton Theater) is supremely sane. If only the execution of the production were less so. Ohanneson's book rambunctiously captures the frontier, anything-goes spirit of postÐGold Rush San Francisco and Axelrod's evocative score combines a honky-tonk, piano-bar feel and snippets of traditional tunes such as "Turkey in the Straw" with arias alternately indebted to Gilbert & Sullivan and Lloyd-Webber & Rice. Yet despite Ohanneson and Axelrod's fine sense of the surreal and some bracingly bonkers performances (especially from the shaggy-looking Peter Doty and Steffanos X as Norton's dogs), Emperor Norton remains a curiously staid affair. The production seems intent on downplaying the madness. The performers mostly move about the stage and sing their lines as if carrying out instructions rather than being fully present in their roles. Stein's staging ultimately makes Norton more of an Everyman than an Emperor. Through April 1 at the Shelton Theater, 533 Sutter (between Mason and Powell), S.F. Tickets are $30; call 433-1226 or visit www.emperornortonthemusical.com. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed Feb. 7.

Fiction.Plays about successful, smug writers are hardly new. But playwright Steven Dietz takes the old formula and gives it a clever new twist by turning his husband-wife pair of novelists against each other. Bad news from the wife's doctor leads to an agreement to share their private journals with one another, and it isn't long before the wife discovers that writing isn't the only recreational activity at a writers' retreat. The ensuing confrontation, after all the years she spent supporting and nurturing his craft, is one we deliciously anticipate most of the first act. But anticipation turns into disappointment when, after one scene of showdown, Dietz suddenly lets his dueling writers off the hook. Instead of raw emotion behind flowery words, the second act is full of thoughtful monologues and abbreviated scenes about things like truth versus fiction and authenticity in authorship. These are all perfectly interesting ideas, smoothly presented to us by director Richard Harder's sure-handed production. But all this elucidation about the nature of the world ultimately gets in the way of the compelling drama between a husband and wife that Dietz sets up so beautifully and then fails to fully tell. Through March 31 at the Phoenix Theatre, 414 Mason St., 6th Floor (between Geary and Post), S.F. Tickets are $25-30; call 440-6163 or visit www.offbroadwaywest.org. (M.R.) Reviewed March 14.

Rust.Thank God there's a poster at intermission explaining all these bizarre characters popping out of walls, getting wheelchaired by, and calling incessantly on the phone, or else the second half of this play would be as enigmatic and confusing as the first. Playwright Kirsten Greenidge brings the racist and "politically problematic" product mascots from the early 1900s (Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben, and Farina, the pigtailed pickaninny from the Little Rascals named after the cereal) into modern-day context. The play attempts, and stumbles, at showing that this shameful racism is still present (she chooses professional football to illustrate her point). The old "mascots" keep appearing or calling on the phone, reminding modern characters to "have a voice" and strive for "respect" and other vague aphorisms. The problem is that this potentially charged discussion doesn't deepen and remains a one-noted and somewhat cryptic plea. It doesn't help the matter that in some scenes the acting relies more on yelling rather than actual acting. Greenidge has chosen a rich and multilayered subject, but in the end she is over-ambitious and her writing can only scratch the surface. Through April 1 at the Magic Theatre, Fort Mason Center, Marina & Buchanan, S.F. Tickets are $20-45; call 441-8822 or visit www.magictheatre.org. (N.E.) Reviewed March 14.

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