The Wooster Group production of Williams’s Vieux Carre proved without question that there is a key to his genius to be found in the later plays, contrary to the accepted notion that he was seriously burned out in the years preceding his untimely death. Elizabeth LeCompte and her lighting designer Jennifer Tipton and, above all, her actors – Ari Fliakos, Scott Shepherd, Kate Valk – brought to stunning life the interior world of a young writer, struggling with the demons he wants to exorcise through words and, at the same time, fighting the loneliness and desperation he sees all around him, wading through his sexual desires and the confusion they bring up. This is the same Williams that wrote The Glass Menagerie, which in Gordon Edelstein’s deeply felt reconsideration of that play, put Tom Wingfield at its center, making another revival of that play seem essential (if anything this past year could be considered essential). Patch Darragh was a revelation as Tom, and, by seeing Amanda as a character in the play whom he is drunkenly but passionately trying to write – rather than by placing the burden of the production on the actress playing that impossible role – it allowed Judith Ivey to be not only funny and poignant but monumentally insensitive. These two productions served as bookends to each other and reawakened us to the special poetic genius of Thomas Lanier Williams, who is arguably the greatest playwright in the history of American dramatic literature.
LA’S OWN AND WHY WE SHOULD BE PROUD OF THEM:
The Poor Dog Group’s production of Gertrude Stein’s Brewsie And Willie, under Travis Preston’s vividly imaginative direction, promised as much as it delivered, and, thanks to the most extraordinary ensemble work, found in Stein’s words a clarity and compassion we don’t always associate with her work. Ken Roht’s Same-O: A 99 Cents Only Electronic Ballad was fabulous in the truest sense of that overused word’s meaning and its great virtue is that it can still be seen at the Bootleg Theater where, if this reviewer had any say, it would run forever. Roht will be back with another show next Christmas and it’s the present I’m looking forward to the most. The magical things that Ann Closs-Farley’s costumes were able to create on a limited budget is all the evidence one needs that genuine art is always about imagination and never about money. Roht’s choreography is pure dazzle and made even more so by the sheer delight his performers take in sharing it with its audience. The Psittacus Production of A Tale Told By An Idiot may not have been in the same league, but it was the kind of innovative work that was deeply encouraging. Aristedes Vargas’s La Razon Blindada was the newest work by the 24th Street Theater, whose simple but great idea is to bring Spanish-language theater, sub-titled, to the general public without condescension; its objectives are serious and not in the least frivolous and this play valiantly and successfully wedded Kafka and Cervantes to a political tragedy in a work of substance and style, played so beautifully by Jesus Castanos-Chima and Tony Duran (at the performance I attended) that, as dense as its language was, subtitles were not always necessary; their body language was more than enough.
David Cale’s Palomino and Dael Orlandersmith’s Stoop Stories provided ample evidence that performance art is not dead. It was the character work that was impressive as Cale and Orlandersmith transformed themselves into a diverse group of recognizable people; but the beauty of the characterizations had everything to do with the subtle and compassionate writing both of these artists were capable of. They both evoked entire worlds, especially creating nostalgia for New York City, from Harlem to Greenwich Village in Orlandersmith’s play, through Central Park in a horse-driven carriage in Cale’s little gem.
The Rogue Machine’s production of Cormac McCarthy’s The Sunset Limited and The Fountain Theatre’s production of Athol Fugard’s The Train Driver would have been major theater events under any circumstances, but they were made even grander by the powerhouse performances by Tucker Smallwood and Ron Bottita in the former and by Morian Higgins and the gently elegant Adolphus Ward in the latter. Neither of these plays shied away from the despair that we live with from day to day or from the seething rage that despair often inspires.
An impressive bunch of new plays popped up this year: Neighbors by Branden Jacobs Jenkins mixed mistrelsy and domestic drama in the year’s most provocative new play. The Twentieth Century Way by Tom Jacobson was a worthy addition to the gathering mass of impressive gay plays because, in every way, it was about something much more expansive and complex than plays about the woes of being gay; it was driven by a moment in history but informed by questions that could only be raised right now. The Ballad Of Emmett Till by Ifa Bayeza was both lyrical and shocking in its look at a fateful trip to the South. Four Places by Joel Drake Johnson was only superficially superficial; it was so brilliantly conceived that it became intensely harrowing even as its comic potential was being fully explored; it didn’t hurt that this project of the estimable Rogue Machine was perhaps the single best-performed new play of the year, by an ensemble that got richer and more rewarding with time. Wrecks by Neil LaBute actually made incest feel like a nurturing experience; the surprising revelation did not seem in the least appalling and, while I think the writing is what made this so, the play could not be separated from the wrenching humanity of Ed Harris’s perfectly calibrated portrait of grieving. The Little Flower Of East Orange by Stephen Adly Guirgis, Futura by Jordan Harrison, Bones by Dael Orlandersmith and, last but by no means least, Ruined by Lynn Nottage were all damned good theater works, all given their due thanks to lively and intelligent productions.
The Antaeus Theatre Company gave new life to Lillian Hellman’s neglected masterpiece The Autumn Garden; what was interesting was that it had two companies of actors, one the Dreamers, one the Idealists, and the ideal trumped the dream. The Celebration Theatre’s fresh look at Richard Greenberg’s Take Me Out was exhilirating fun. And the Odyssey Theatre found a heady new translation of Max Frisch’s The Arsonists and wove it into theatrical gold.
IMPORTANT PLAYS THAT DESERVED BETTER PRODUCTIONS:
Tom Stoppard’s Rock’n’Roll: the rich humanism was jettisoned in favor of its intellectual argument. Martin McDonagh’s The Lieutenant Of Inishmore: a masterpiece of dark comic possibilities was transformed into a crowd-pleasing farce and played not for Irish rawness but for Hollywood slickness. John Steppling’s Phantom Luck was a striking and obsessive meditation on gambling and death that was, in large part, wonderfully acted, but which was given an embarrassingly shoddy and static staging. Christopher Durang’s deliciously deranged Why Torture Is Wrong And The People Who Love Them is exactly the sort of play that should have been done at the Taper or the Geffen, but even its plug-ugly low-budget Blank Theatre production could hide neither its savage satire nor its farcical rowdiness.
Randy Newman’s Harps And Angels was, quite simply, a delight; being a Newman admirer helped, of course, but it was done with real feeling and a kind of subdued reverence. The Women Of Brewster Place turned the tiny stage of the Celebration Theatre into an opera house with its musical brilliance and its refusal to hide its more painful truths even as it insisted upon being a rousing entertainment. If Hoboken To Hollywood: A Journey Through the American Songbook wants to go beyond its Santa Monica run, it will have to attend to its not-quite-ready-for-prime-time book, but, even as it stands, it brings a smile to one’s face that just won’t go away, because, let’s face it, the American Songbook, as sung by a certain legendary crooner, is just about as good as it gets.
UNCLASSIFIABLE BUT UNDENIABLY EXQUISITE:
Basil Twist’s Petrushka, the most elegant puppet ballet that has perhaps ever been created and executed for the stage. Elegant and ravishing and, of course, genuinely sad, it was pure poetry in motion.
The best actors in the world are either in New York or London, and a good deal of what passes for good acting here in Los Angeles is, to these jaded eyes, surprisingly without nuance, but, having said that, a look back at some of the year’s good performances reveals that there are a hell of a lot of fine actors here. Some of the performances that stayed with me (in addition to those mentioned above): Timothy McNeil and Michael Friedman (The Little Flower Of East Orange); Roxanne Hart, Tim Bagley, Anne Gee Byrd (Four Places); Justin Tanner and Danielle Kennedy (Oklahomo!); Thomas James O’Leary (Take Me Out); John Achorn, Ron Botitta, Norbert Weisser (The Arsonists), George Gerdes and James Storm (Phantom Luck); Edward Tournier (Futura and Supernova); Lorenz Arnell (The Ballad Of Emmett Till); Julia Campbell and Daniele Watts (Neighbors); Khandi Alexander and Tessa Auberjonois (Bones); Benny Wills and Jan Munroe (The Good Woman of Setzuan); Portia, Russell G. Jones and Quincy Tyler Bernstine (Ruined); Pamela Reed (Elektra); Mim Drew and Agatha Nowicki (Parasite Drag); Bonita Friedericy (Futura); Danielle Kennedy and Tom Fitzpatrick (Procreation); Brad Culver (Brewsie And Willie); Justin Okin (Milk Milk Lemonade); Deirdre O’Connell (The Wake); Christine Estabrook (Why Torture Is Wrong And The People Who Love Them), Jaimi Page (Great Expectations).
ACTORS IN MUSICALS:
At the very top of the list is Michael McKean who, it turns out, is the Randy Newman interpreter par excellence (Harps And Angels); almost as good, and quite astonishing in his ability to make his own the cadences and rhythms of that unnamed crooner we know as Ol’ Blue Eyes, is Luca Ellis (Hoboken To Hollywood); Stephanie J. Bloch (They’re Playing Our Song); Raul Esparza (Leap of Faith); Chester Gregory (Dreamgirls); Christine Horn and Kim Yarbrough (The Women Of Brewster Place); Adriane Lenox and Matthew Saldivar (Harps And Angels); Carmen Cusack, Keola Settle and Matthew Saldivar (South Pacific).
In addition to the work of the aforementioned Elizabeth LeCompte, Travis Preston, Ken Roht, Gordon Edelstein et al, I would add Robin Larsen (Four Places), Michael Michetti (The Twentieth Century Way); Michael Matthews (Take Me Out and The Women Of Brewster Place); Kate Whoriskey (Ruined); Stephen Sachs (The Train Driver); John Perrin Flynn (The Sunset Limited); David Fofi (The Little Flower Of East Orange); Jerry Zaks (Harps And Angels), Justin Tanner (Oklahomo!).
And now we sally forth into 2011.
harveyperr @ stageandcinema.com