LA’s Best Theater 2009


EDGE Media Network Contributor

Wednesday December 30, 2009

What was the best theater in Los Angeles (and San Diego as well)? EDGE's theater mavens have made their choices... here they are:

Jennifer Chen’s choices

New to the scene, Chalk Repertory Theatre staged a thoroughly funny and wonderfully performed play (and also winner of the longest play title this year), The Debate Over Courtney O’Connell of Columbus, Nebraska is about a jealous lover fighting his ex’s current lover in a public debate. Set up like a political debate, the debate moderator asks questions like "Why are you the best man for Courtney?" and "How will you take care of her financially?" The cast works double-time to make every moment genuine and humorous. Director Jennifer Chang does an excellent job of heightening the debate moment by moment with looks, stomps, lovey-dovey kisses, even bursts of song. The playfulness of The Debate Over Courtney O’Connell is ever present and steady.

Center Theatre Group’s production of the musical Pippin takes the play to new heights with deaf actors alongside hearing actors playing the exact same parts--the deaf actors signing while their songs are sung by their counterparts. The use of ASL adds to the theatrics and the dance choreography is brilliantly conceptualized by director Jeff Calhoun. The exceptional cast clearly dedicated enormous amounts of time to the translation of matching song lyrics to signed movements. What makes "Pippin" as envisioned by Deaf West Theatre and Center Theatre Group so amazing is that all the elements work together and make a truly magical evening of theater.

In Julie Hebert’s Tree, a small Chicago house is replicated with a New Orleans boat hanging over stage left. Of particular note is Sloan Robinson whose turn as a matriarch losing her mind is emotional, comedic, lovely, and tender. It is evident that Tree has been given much care and love by Ensemble Studio Theatre LA’s production from the choice of actors, staging, and mastery of the play. Tree is a tight 90 minutes with not a wasted piece of dialogue or stage movement.

Obed Medina’s choices

A border town drama with dark themes of sex, family dysfunction and secrets is a hard play to sell but it is also an important work for the Mexican-American community that will embrace it as well as be repelled by the frank openness. Set in El Paso in the late 1970s, Octavio Solis’s Lydia (Mark Taper Forum) focuses on the relationship between a psychic maid and the near-vegetative teen girl in her care. This Pulitzer Prize nominated play wonderfully captures the horror and the grotesque with lyricism while avoiding sentimentality.

The stylized interpretation of the Greek tragedy Medea is given a contemporary flair by visionary director Lenka Udovicki in this production staged at UCLA Freud Playhouse. The script (taken from Frederic Raphael and Kenneth McLeish’s 1994 text) emphasizes the complex psychology of Medea - which is usually thought to be a simple scorned-woman tale and slowly reveals the layers. The modern staging features modern staging and movement, world music (by Pirayeh Pourafar in collaboration with Nigel Osborne) and a sparse set. Annette Bening is captivating as Medea.

Moonlight and Magnolias is a creative extrapolation on the creation of a script for a major motion picture in the late 1930s that would eventually become one of the biggest movies of all times, Gone With the Wind. The play is witty, fast-paced and larger than life - a great combination for a slap-stick comedy. Hutchinson has captured the players, David O. Selznick, Ben Hecht and Victor Fleming at their most comedic during the five-day period it took to finish the non-existent screenplay adaptation of Margaret Mitchell’s Civil Warn melodrama. Laguna Playhouse’s production is lively, well-cast and sprawling, yet intimate at the same time.

Eric Rosen’s choices

With a nearly three-hour runtime, and a historical scope that stretches back over 400 years, Bill Cain’s latest play Equivocation is ambitious to say the least. In it, he imagines a scenario in which William Shakespeare is asked to write the official account (in dramatic form) of the infamous Gunpowder Plot of 1605, in which Guy Fawkes and his Catholic aristocratic co-conspirators contrived to blow up the Houses of Parliament and King James I. Cain’s Shakespeare is a stormy artist preoccupied with his legacy who is troubled by being forced into basically producing a piece of propaganda for the king’s minister, Sir Robert Cecil. Cain searches for answers to questions like what an artist’s place in society is, where is the line between politics and arts, and what lengths an artist will go to achieve immortality. Then he sprinkles in other elements like the resonance between the circumstances of the play’s time and our own, what with war, terrorism and a "shadow government" that uses questionable methods to achieve its ends and protect the status quo. Does that sound like a lot? It is. Almost too much, in fact, but director Daniel Esbjornson kept the action moving swiftly in the Geffen Playhouse production, as did the energetic (and practically acrobatic) cast of six actors playing the dozens of roles. This was a great piece of theater for those who like to come away with more questions than answers.

David Mamet’s one-act Oleanna explores the murky relationship between a professor desperate for tenure and his overzealous student who mistakes his compassion for a sexual overture. The two-hander is one of Mamet’s most problematic works-both for the actors and the audience, raising questions about perception, spin and the power dynamic in relationships. Whether it answers them is another question. As it unfolds in John’s (the professor) university office over the course of several scenes, we find out that his student Carol has accused him of attempted rape. Apart from the fact that one cannot really sympathize with either character, there’s also the matter of Mamet’s misogynistic undertones. Nevertheless, Tony Award-winning director Doug Hughes managed to coax decent performances out of his two celebrity headliners: Bill Pullman playing the hangdog John with aplomb, and Julia Stiles injecting Carol’s self-righteousness with just the right amount of detestable zest. The production, from the Mark Taper Forum, transferred to Broadway.

Rantoul and Die This -- this "romantic comedy wrapped in razor wire" -- is a searing look at the foibles of the uninspired denizens of a Podunk town in Middle America. Rallis and his wife Debbie are slogging through a nightmare of a marriage that has reached its breaking point, thanks in no small part to Debbie’s affair with Rallis’ best friend, the slightly psychotic Gary. Added into the mix is a sugary sweet co-worker of Debbie’s from the Dairy Queen, Callie, whose saccharine exterior hides a horrific secret of her own. When all four characters combine-balancing elements of love, hate, hope, despair, laughter, depression, personal freedom and entrapment-the effect is downright combustible. Mark Roberts, whose day job is as a producer and writer on "Two and a Half Men," has certainly taken a long, hard look at the dark side with this project, which played at the Lillian Theatre.

Trevor Thomas’s choices

Under Geoff Elliot’s taut direction, A Noise Within’s winter production of Richard III featured a magnificent performance by Steve Weingartner as the seductive hunchback. Zeroing in on his targets, alternately obsequious and deadly, Weingartner nailed each in short order while pulling us through a crack in the fourth wall to share his delight in how easily the lust for power corrupts those who put their fate in the hands of silken tongued politicians promising, dare we say, hope and change. With a great turn by Deborah Strang as the mad Queen Margaret, the only sane person in the place, this dark Shakespearean tale was chillingly a propos.

Though hating to place big bucks hits like Spamalot up against more modestly produced fare, a quick perusal of other traveling megahits reminds one that huge amounts of money can be misspent. Not a dime was out of place in this glorious retelling of the Monty Python medieval romp. Genius can be as misapplied as specie in such endeavors, but this was not the case with the combined talents of writers Eric Idle and John de Prez, director Mike Nichols, and the acting talents of John O’Hurley, Jeff Dumas, and Merle Dandridge, among others. Spamalot slung its mischief from a high parapet and nobody connected with the show smelled the least of elderberries.

The Cornerstone Theater Company infused what threatened to be a tiresome piece of protest theater with so much inventiveness and theatrical magic that Touch the Water - A River Play quickly transcended the burnt over genre to became a glorious love song to the forlorn Los Angeles River. Performed outdoors and next to a stretch of wild river surrounded by train tracks, freeway, and the twinkling lights of the Silverlake hills, Touch the Water was an enchanting production that got its message of paradise lost across in ways both subtle and sublime.

Steve Heyl’s choices for San Diego theater

Bonnie and Clyde - new musical
Hedwig and the Angry Inch - musical revival
The History Boys - play

In a season that saw three major new musicals by the likes of Holland/Dozier/Holland and Leslie Bricusse, updated books for two Stephen Schwartz classics, and an important addition to the LGBT repertoire, it is difficult to pick just three ’best’ shows as I was asked to do. Standout performances in already brilliant productions propelled those listed above to the top the of the list. I wish that I could include other amazing performances such as Obba Babatundé as Sammy and Michael Zlotnik in Bent or innovative productions such as the Lamb’s Theater production of Godspell. But in in the end, it is Laura Osnes and Stark Sands as Bonnie and Clyde, Matthew Tyler as Hedwig, and Tom Zohar in The History Boys that make their respective shows the ones for which the year will be remembered.

Comments on Facebook