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Debits and Credits 

Wednesday, Dec 25 2002
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Most Watchable Actress

Once seen onstage, Gigi Bermingham is not likely to be forgotten. She's the gal with the voluptuous smile and can-do spunk who effortlessly conjures an America of rolled-up sleeves and wisecracks. Then why do we sense, in some of her calmest portrayals, a cornered neurotic spiraling out of control? In truth, we can't decide whether Bermingham's characters are the kind of people who inspire us to emotionally elope with them or lock up our medicine cabinets when they're around. This year's self-written one-woman show, Non-Vital Organs, demonstrated Bermingham's uncanny performance discipline and jagged wit as she portrayed seven women, ranging from a former paint huffer to the manipulative heiress who runs a halfway house for troubled young women.

Most Anti-Climactic Ending

The longest-running show on both the Mark Taper and Ahmanson stages, Gordon Davidson's reign as artistic director of the Center Theater Group, ended in the least dramatic way possible, a non-resignation resignation submitted to the CTG board, and later officially announced only after it had been leaked to the L.A. Times. But even this announcement wasn't a decisive door-slam — Davidson's departure wouldn't be effective until the start of 2005. This was no way to drop a bombshell — the end of L.A. theater's most celebrated postwar era inspired neither catharsis nor resolution, and resisted every opportunity to explore the nature of cultural power and generational divides in American society. Why didn't Davidson's letter go through a Taper committee review and several rewrites — where were the dramaturges? Wasn't Robbie Baitz in town?

Best Political Play

Becoming Cuban (City Stage at the Hudson Guild Theater), Carlos Lacámara's story about a naive American's encounter with two Cubas — one ideologically committed to its revolution, the other frustrated with food shortages and the grayness of life — proved that topical events can make compelling drama.

Cheapest Sleeping Pill

Forget TV, short attention spans and NEA cuts — American theater's deadliest enemy is its dullest champion, American Theater magazine. This earnest glossy can paralyze the most agitated insomniac with unreadable articles about "diversity," "gender identity" and all the other P.C. euphemisms for boring cant that arts writers use in place of originality (and that some playwrights substitute for storytelling). If its writing weren't so narcotizing, A.T. might at least be useful for the scripts it prints each month, but wading through such sincere pieces as "Towards a Theater of Action" and "Who Will Speak for the Children?" is like getting stuck in an elevator with Peter Sellars. After a few pages of this you can't help but want to pull the wings off butterflies.

Most Durable Trouper

I first saw Sharon Lockwood perform in a 1971 San Francisco Mime Troupe production called An Independent Woman, a satirical tale of suffragettes; in her recent impersonation of author Barbara Ehrenreich in fellow Mime Troupe vet Joan Holden's stage version of Nickel and Dimed (Mark Taper Forum), Lockwood was every bit as energetic, funny and — in the best sense — instructive as she was 31 years ago.

Craggiest Actor

John Horn's portrayal of a Tijuana barkeep in Wesley Walker's Wilfredo (Padua Playwrights) proved once more that no one does hard-boiled theater like this dedicated actor.

Most Compelling Storyteller

With the ironically titled one-woman show Where Do Babies Come From? (Elephant Theater), Vicki Juditz again proved her narrative powers as she took us through her own harrowing journey as a would-be parent entering the world of surrogate motherhood.

Best Revival

Chay Yew's re-envisioning of The House of Bernarda Alba at the Mark Taper Forum. Directed by Lisa Peterson, this fast-moving production of Garcia Lorca's fable about a controlling matriarch was infused with a Latin-Pacific sensibility that retained the play's repressive gravity while leavening it with bawdy laughter.

Most Ambitious Small-Theater Production

The Evidence Room's presentation of David Edgar's Pentecost was a tart speculation on the nature of cultural authorship and possession.

Instant Theater: Just Add Disaster

I wrote a glowing review after seeing Ann Nelson's The Guys at Actors Gang, but when Tim Robbins left the show, I realized I was at a loss for much good to say. Take away Robbins' quietly intense portrayal of a New York Fire Department captain who enlists the aid of a writer to help him come up with some eulogies after 9/11, and we were left with a wan melodrama that wore its feelings like cheap perfume. No wonder: The play was originally written as fund-raising material for a Manhattan theater, but the emotional updraft following 9/11 ensured that this slightest of works rose to the top of everyone's must-see list.

~ STAGE ENTRANCES ~

Over There, Over Here. 2002 marked the arrival of UCLA's International Theater Festival, the first such fest we've had since Peter Sellars ran the Los Angeles Festival into the ground in 1993. Impresario David Sefton started small with only two venues on the UCLA campus. Yet his importing top companies from Italy (Societas Raffaello Sanzio), the Netherlands (ZT Hollandia), Germany (Heiner Goebbels), France (Compagnie du Hanneton) and Denmark (Robert Wilson brought in a Danish company for his production of Woyzeck) was the first sign in almost a decade that somebody in the theater with access to big money was taking seriously the notion that ideas from beyond our shores do actually matter.

 

Fast Times Downtown. It's been over a year since the Times theater critic Michael Phillips skipped town for Chicago, and his replacement has done a bang-up job. The coverage by the new drama ace is extensive, the prose erudite yet accessible. (Sorry for jumping ahead; perhaps Phillips' replacement will be named soon.)

 

Slavic Accents. Enter what may be a trend on local stages: erotically charged and emotionally tortured women from Eastern Europe, whose sinewy physiques suggest possible eating disorders. Two of the year's best performances came from that mold: Jacqueline Wright's cynical Romanian, abandoned by her neo-Nazi boyfriend and wooed by an American businessman, in Brian Cousins' And Still the Dogs at Ensemble Studio Theater (the L.A. Project); and Bari Hochwald's world-weary concentration-camp survivor from Poland, slithering across the Catskills in Murray Mednick's memory play Fedunn at the Odyssey Theater.

 

~ STAGE EXITS ~

New Times Out. The sudden disappearance in 2002 of New Times Los Angeles was troubling, not just because our own parent organization, Village Voice Media, was partly responsible for shutting it down as part of a trade between the two alternative-media chains, but because New Times itself arrived on the scene by gobbling up two alternative papers — the Village View and the Reader — that had covered the local stage. If you want some good cheer this holiday season, don't try counting the number of published theater reviews per week L.A.'s lost over the past few years due to mergers and acquisitions.

 

Don't ASK, Don't Tell. 2002 also included this year's shrinking of ASK Theater Projects from a producer of developmental readings and workshops to what appears to be a mere moneychanger. The reason? There are already so many workshop and readings series, ASK doesn't want to be redundant. The results? Yet another institution that bestows funds to other institutions rather than to artists; doublespeak; mandatory written oaths of silence for employees; and the departure to greener fields of half the staff (Mead Hunter, Matt Almos, Wendy McClellan, Alison Merkel and Bryan Davidson), who were responsible for the vitality behind the organization's most dynamic hands-on literary and kids' programs.

 

~ COMMODE-ITIES ~

Number 1, or Number 2? Among the bizarre entertainments at small theaters are the backstage restrooms, which provide pre-show and intermission entertainment for the 50 to 100 people who remain seated, watching as each patron tries to look cool entering a cubicle, and then observing the changed expression when returning to their seats. Theater of NOTE, ZJU Theater, Open Fist Theater and 2100 Square Feet all have this perk. Among this season's superior moments was when a woman at ZJU Theater crossed the stage and ceremoniously closed the toilet door behind her, in full public view. Unaware, the stage manager dropped the proscenium curtain in preparation for the show's start — a curtain that needed to be parted to allow for the restroom patron's return to her seat, queen for the day as she dried her hands with a paper towel. Such are the precious yet leveling moments that distinguish the theater from the movies.

 

~ MEA CULPA ~

Write On. In my review of Gatsby in Hollywood at the Met Theater, I complained that Fitzgerald's pen looked just like a thin plastic uni-ball ballpoint, which hadn't been invented when Scotty was alive. Eileen from Eileen's Prop Shop called to complain that her research was diligent and that the pen she obtained for the production was authentic. But I figured the pen should have looked like a fat cigar, with the same design curves that were so prominent in American cars of the time. Then I went to a catalog of American pens and discovered an array of samplings from the era that looked just like thin plastic uni-ball ballpoint pens. Oops.

—Steven Leigh Morris

Reach the writer at smikulan@laweekly.com

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