THE SUPERBOWL OF LOS ANGELES THEATER FOR 2011
2011 ENDED NOT WITH THE PROVERBIAL WHIMPER BUT WITH A RESOUNDING BANG: Fela! was not merely the best new musical of the year, it was one of its most vivid theatrical experiences as well. Most of the credit goes to Bill T. Jones, who conceived, directed, and choreographed it. For once, the cavernous Ahmanson stage seemed almost too small, because, wherever you looked at any given moment, there was always something striking to see. Sahr Ngaujah brought Fela Kuti electrically to life. And Melanie Marshall’s vocal pyrotechnics were mesmerizing. Fela! offered ample evidence that the commercial theater can still be inventive and exciting. And it provided all the heat one needed through a cold December.
GREATEST EVENT: The RADAR/LA FESTIVAL was such a heady collection of some of the most stunning examples of international experimental theater that, upon reflection, one hoped that it would become an annual event. So much of it was so extraordinary that it is difficult to single out one standout piece, but I particularly liked Neva from Chile’s Teatro en Blanco, Hot Pepper, Air Conditioner, and the Farewell Speech from Japan’s Chelfitsch, and, most sublime of all, Fleur Elise Noble’s 2 Dimensional Life Of Her, which truly broke new ground, and which I would gladly have sat through as many times as I could (and I would have, except that so much else was going on). Naturally, there were some events that were less than extraordinary, but, in general, it was a week of discovering what is possible in the theater when artists are at work and play.
THE YEAR I DISCOVERED ZOMBIE JOE’S UNDERGROUND THEATRE GROUP: I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: there is a genius in our midst, and he has the unlikeliest name: Zombie Joe. ZJU makes mistakes, but they are minor when one considers the invention that goes into using such a small, cramped space with such precision. Urban Death was Zombie’s great signature piece, but Robert Riemer’s Sotto Voce and Hosea Nova and especially Edgar Allen Poe’s The Cask of Amontillado were unique events in their own way, and, though Zombie Joe was the director responsible for most of what was best in his theater’s body of work, he has created an aesthetic that seems to inspire everyone who works there, especially Denise Devin, whose scaled-down productions of Shakespeare never reduce the heart of the plays.
BEST THEATER: The Fountain Theatre, which housed the year’s greatest artistic achievement, a gorgeous production of Tennessee Williams’s A House Not Meant to Stand (which proved, once and for all, that Williams was never on the decline and that he could still write a play in his later years that had more life in it than the work of most playwrights working today), and the year’s dandiest commercial entertainment, Stephen Sachs’s Bakersfield Mist. Runner-up: The Rogue Machine, which gave us John Pollono’s testosterone-filled Small Engine Repair and a production of David Harrower’s Blackbird, which was deeper and more nuanced and inevitably more touching and disturbing than it was in its highly acclaimed New York production. The Boston Court also deserves praise for its adventurous programming, for, even when they fail, they fail honorably, and, in 2011, they gave us Fin Kennedy’s How to Disappear Completely and Never Be Found, which went off in many directions, most of which were fascinatingly complex.
A FINE YEAR FOR ONE-PERSON SHOWS: I will have to let go of my aversion to one-person shows because the year brought a host of memorable ones. Honorable mention: Charlayne Woodard (The Night Watcher); Roger Guenveur Smith ( Juan and John); Herbert Siguenza ( A Weekend with Pablo Picasso); David Greenspan (Poetics and Plays); Hershey Felder (George Gershwin Alone); Riel Paley (Antiman); John Lithgow (“Uncle Fred Flits By,” the first and best part of Stories by Heart). Personal choice: Two-way tie – John Fleck ( Mad Women); Fleur Elise Noble (2 Dimensional Life Of Her).
BEST PLAYS: Honorable Mention: bonded (Donald Jolly); The House of the Rising Son (Tom Jacobson); The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity (Kristoffer Diaz); Poor Behavior (Theresa Rebeck); Sotto Voce (Robert Riemer); Blackbird (David Harrower); Bakersfield Mist (Stephen Sachs); The Capulets and the Montagues (Lope de Vega); Small Engine Repair (John Pollono); How to Disappear Completely and Never Be Found (Fin Kennedy); Cattywampus (Robert Cucuzza). Personal Choice: three-way tie – A House Not Meant to Stand (Tennessee Williams); Circle Mirror Transformation (Annie Baker); The Cripple of Inishmaan (Martin McDonagh).
BEST REVIVAL: Eccentricities of a Nightingale (Tennessee Williams) at A Noise Within.
BEST MUSICAL REVIVAL: Honorable Mention: Cabaret. Personal Choice: Kiss Me, Kate. Indeed, the Reprise series (which produced both) is one of our local treasures, and the report of financial difficulties is dismaying. If any theater in Los Angeles deserves continuous support from the community, this should certainly be at the top of the list.
BEST NEW LOS ANGELES MUSICAL: Cyclops: A Rock Opera from the boys at Psittacus.
BEST DIRECTION: Honorable Mention: Simon Levy (A House Not Meant to Stand ); Sam Gold ( Circle Mirror Transformation); Michael Matthews ( What’s Wrong With Angry?); Michael Michetti (Kiss Me, Kate and The House of the Rising Son); Garry Hynes ( The Cripple of Inishmaan); Robin Larsen (Blackbird); Zombie Joe (Edgar Allen Poe’s The Cask of Amontillado); Anne McNaughton (The Capulets and the Montagues). Personal Choice: Two-way tie – Peter Brook and Marie Hélène Estienne (Fragments); Bart DeLorenzo (Margo Veil).
BEST PRODUCTIONS: Honorable Mention: A House Not Meant to Stand; Margo Veil; Circle Mirror Transformation; Kiss Me, Kate; Fela! Personal Choice: The Cripple of Inishmaan
MOST PERFECT PIECE OF THEATER: Three-way tie – Fragments; Urban Death; 2 Dimensional Life Of Her.
SET DESIGN: Honorable Mention: Thomas Lynch (Radiance: The Passion of Marie Curie); Keith Mitchell ( Margo Veil); Ralph Funicello ( Burn This). Personal Choice: Jeff McLaughlin (A House Not Meant to Stand; Bakersfield Mist; Hermetically Sealed)
COSTUME DESIGN: Honorable Mention: Ann Closs-Farley ( Margo Veil); Gary Lennon (Kiss Me, Kate); Robert Prior (Heavier Than…). Personal Choice: Naila Aladdin-Sanders (A House Not Meant to Stand ).
LIGHTING DESIGN: Honorable Mention: Lap Chi Chu (Heavier Than…); Chris Kuhl (How to Disappear Completely and Never Be Found). Personal Choice: Two-way tie – Lap Chi Chu (Margo Veil); Philippe Vialatte (Fragments).
LAST BUT NEVER LEAST -THE BEST PERFORMANCES OF THE YEAR: Although there are probably more actors concentrated in Los Angeles than in any other city of the world, there seems to be an ambivalence here towards the art of stage acting. First-rate actors rarely get singled out and are frequently lumped together with second and third-rate actors, to the advantage of neither. And actors – who are, after all, the life-blood of live theater – can make or break the production of a play, a fact that seems to go unappreciated. There were, for example, some performances this year which, had they been seen in London or New York, would have been considered career-transforming performances, and those performances are the ones I am giving the top place in my list. There was, first and foremost, the always brilliant Danielle Kennedy, who found the role of her lifetime in Justin Tanner’s Day Drinkers and ran with it; she so richly became the character that one might have thought that she was indeed the character she was playing. That, of course, is the secret of the great performances: they seem not to be about acting at all but about immersing themselves into the heart of the play and revealing its mysteries. In addition, having seen any of these actors at work, one can no longer imagine the plays in which they appeared with anyone else in their roles. Sandy Martin was every bit as wonderful in Tennessee Williams’s A House Not Meant to Stand ; she brought the play itself with her onto the stage the moment she made her dazed entrance and embraced its poignancy and its wackiness simultaneously. And Brad Culver gave the breakout performance of the year, guiding the audience through and, thereby, bringing clarity to the intricacies of Fin Kennedy’s How to Disappear Completely and Never Be Found. Sam Anderson‘s torments in David Harrower’s Blackbird were so real that, rather than have distaste for what his character had done, one’s heart was broken by his own failure to recognize the consequences of his actions. Gigi Bermingham lost her mind before our eyes in Kathryn Graf’s Hermetically Sealed while, of all things, baking pies; it was seamless work. Deborah Puette And Jason Dechert interacted so luminously with each other in Tennessee Williams’s Eccentricities of a Nightingale that they literally shimmered, and, for the very first time, I understood why Williams preferred this version to his more dramatic but also more schematic Summer and Smoke. Williams, of course, loved actors, and wrote some of the greatest parts in the history of the American theater; actors have so much fun playing them, and that particular joy was expressed in Five Beauties. But of the five one-acts, it was in Williams’ early and uncharacteristic “Moony’s Kid Don’t Cry” (one of the five) that Scott Sheldon exploded into one’s consciousness by transforming himself into the hapless Moony. Of course, the women Williams created were particularly memorable, and, again, in A House Not Meant to Stand , Sandy Martin had some extraordinary support from Lisa Richards and Virginia Newcomb who were hilariously funny and, at the same time, incredibly moving in small but vividly written parts – the former as a woman who refused to grow old and the latter as a girl who hadn’t yet grown up. And Jenny O’Hara found a myriad of ways in which to instill dignity into the liveliest piece of trailer trash one is ever likely to come across in Stephen Sachs’s Bakersfield Mist – trailer trash with some ideas on Art that reduces an art curator to dithering. In the musical theater. Lesli Margherita was a force to be reckoned with in Cole Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate; her temperamental diva metamorphosed into Shakespeare’s shrew with a bravado that stood out even in a uniformly brilliant cast. And the revival of Kander and Ebb’s Cabaret remembered that Frau Schneider was a central character and Mary Gordon Murray‘s warm and winning characterization gave the part its due, while Bryce Ryness proved, with a combination of slyness and confidence, that there are more ways to play the emcee than can be dreamed of. And I don’t know much about Butoh, but the way in which Vangeline moved in David J’s The Chanteuse and the Devil’s Muse was transfixing. This comprises a group of actors I’d be watching for in the future.
Other performances that stood out: Michelle Clunie (Neil LaBute’s The Mercy Seat); Corryn Cummings (David Harrower’s Blackbird); Nick Ullett (Stephen Sachs’s Bakersfield Mist); JD Cullum and Zoe Perry (Noel Coward’s Peace in Our Time); Rafael Goldstein (ZJU’s Romeo and Juliet); Terrence Colby Clemons (Donald Jolly’s bonded).
And Los Angeles got a large shot of adrenaline from the presence in our midst of some superb New York actors: Reg Rogers, Christopher Evan Welch, and Johanna Day (Theresa Rebeck’s Poor Behavior); Desmin Borges (Kristoffer Diaz’s The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity); F. Murray Abraham (William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice), to name a few. And, of course, we were witness to how a mediocre play can be transformed into a thrilling experience when actors as good as Marcia Gay Harden, James Gandolfini, Jeff Daniels, and Hope Davis turned on to full intensity the star wattage they were capable of, as they did in Yasmina Reza’s God of Carnage.
The year’s ensemble work was also pretty impressive: In addition to the aforementioned God of Carnage, there was solid and frequently beautiful work in Margo Veil, Circle Mirror Transformation, Cyclops: A Rock Opera, Urban Death, The Capulets and the Montagues, Small Engine Repair, and, most sublime of all, The Cripple of Inishmaan.
But perhaps the most extraordinary example of the art of acting was in full flower when Yoshi Oïda, Bruce Myers, and Hayley Carmichael danced their way through five short Samuel Beckett pieces in Fragments.
It was, as they say, a very good year. Here’s to 2012.