A couple of random observations on local theater in 2007. The Valley is rising, and so are the beaches, to a lesser extent. A trend has been developing over the past three years that became even more pronounced in 2007 — the number of rock-solid theater productions emerging from North Hollywood and Burbank. In years past, our critics would consider it punishment to be sent to the Valley. But in today’s economic-artistic climate, there’s been a noticeable geographic shift in the number of productions worth considering for review — from Hollywood to the Valley. The quality of those productions has been reflected in reviews — and not just from this newspaper. Speculation as to the cause: real estate. The costs of putting on a play in Hollywood have driven most of our best companies out of the region — Actors’ Gang and Theatre/Theater spring to mind. (Circle X has been performing in Hollywood for years, but remains technically a gypsy troupe.) With the exception of Theatre of NOTE and Open Fist Theatre, among the last of the better Hollywood membership companies, Hollywood is now the land of indie productions in rental houses — people who roll in to do one show for whatever reason people would want to do one show in Hollywood. (Hmmm . . . wonder what that could be.) Even Open Fist, which took over Actors’ Gang’s former digs on Santa Monica Boulevard, is getting itchy to move on to economically friendlier pastures. Here’s a list of memorable shows, arrived at capriciously, from 2007. I’ll start with the Valley.
1.?Palace of the End, 49th Parallel and Open at the Top Productions at the Noho Arts Center. In a richly textured survey, Judith Thompson’s interrelated soliloquies spun a trio of characters converging on Iraq: U.S. Army Pfc. Lynndie England (Kate Mines); British weapons inspector Dr. David Kelly (Michael Katlin); and Anna Khaja’s Iraqi ghost Nehrjas (killed during the first U.S. invasion). Finely directed by Sara Botsford and C.B. Brown, Thompson defiantly scraped to the marrow of opposing camps, offering a lament that contained a rare, eerie beauty.
2.?Loyal Women, Theatre Banshee (Burbank). A topflight ensemble under Sean Branney’s direction gave Gary Mitchell’s grimly amusing drama its propulsion. This was a story of women set in a Protestant enclave in Northern Ireland, where the tyrannies of the local UDA Women’s Auxiliary — such as forbidding a romance between young Adele (Lisa Dobbyn) and her Catholic beau — make the horrors of our local homeowners associations (take down that basketball hoop from your garage!) seem benign.
3.?The Glory of Living, Victory Theatre Center (Burbank). Another great Valley ensemble populated the stage in Rebecca Gilman’s homicidal road saga about the 15-year-old daughter (Rachel Style) of an Alabama prostitute (Saige Spinney), who runs off with a smooth-talking drifter named Clint (Martin Papazian). Though the play trafficked in melodrama, the emotional authenticity was a revelation.
4.?Why Marry?, Theater Neo at the Secret Rose Theatre, North Hollywood. Who knew about Jessie Lynch Williams’ 1917 comedy — the first recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for drama? David Cheaney’s winking staging helped unearth a forgotten treasure that anticipated all the cultural crises that would accompany the “free love” ’60s, opening a window on where we are romantically, and how that’s a consequence of where we came from.
5.?Black Watch, National Theatre of Scotland at UCLA Live. Far more interesting than the Royal Shakespeare Company juggernaut that arrived on its heels, Gregory Burke’s docu-drama (with video footage, naturally) gave us a haunting and innately theatrical rendition of wartime travails among members of the Scottish Black Watch army regiment in Iraq, and the slightly bewildered playwright who struggled to capture their story. John Tiffany’s directing style of cinematic macho realism suddenly folded into a kind of ballet. If this technique didn’t keep wartime clichés at bay, at least it reinvented them.
6.?The Complications of Purchasing a Poodle Pillow, Steve Allen Theater at the Center for Inquiry–West, Hollywood. Mary Lynn Rajskub — more famous as the anti-terrorist computer expert, Chloe, on Fox’s 24 than she is as a standup or performance artist — spun that paradox in a seemingly discombobulated one-woman show about fame, dating and making stuff up. Just when you thought this was about everything and nothing, an hour’s worth of her accumulating images suddenly congealed into a world-weary and world-wise view on life.
7.?Richard II, Independent Shakespeare Company at Barnsdall Park, Hollywood. This very good company keeps getting better. David Melville brought his trademark South of England sarcasm to the gay regent who figured he could spend all of England’s resources, banish his detractors and act on the bad counsel of his close friends. If this sounds like somebody we all know in a more familiar empire, director Joseph Culliton’s bare-bones staging didn’t push that comparison, but let the play’s implicit parallels tell the story.
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8.?Orestes Remembered: The Fury Project, Ghost Road Theatre Company at the Powerhouse Theatre, Santa Monica. Writer-director Katharine Noon spun the Clytemnestra legend, and the forlorn young murderer (Ronnie Clark) who’s now haunted after killing his mom (for betraying his dad, but that’s another story). This ensemble creation resulted in a unique, animated and infinitely engaging, if bipolar, production that was half campy, existential mystery and half courtroom drama. Yet the actors’ devotion to the project was evident, and made it memorable.
9.?N*gger, Wetb*ck, Ch*nk, Ivar Theater, Hollywood. Writer-performers Rafael Augustin, Allan Axibal, Miles Gregley, Liesel Reinhart and writer Steven T. Seagle’s dance party, poetry slam and sketch-comedy show took some of the ugliest words in the culture and gleefully mocked them into impotence. The “can’t-we-all-get-along” theme was a bit honey-soaked, but I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face through most of this show.
10.?Quartet, City Garage, Santa Monica. Director Frederique Michel and production designer Charles Duncombe do challenging, esoteric European works out there near Hooters. Their productions of Ionesco’s Rhinoceros and Pirandello’s The Bald Soprano drew crowds this year. Quartet didn’t, but it was their finest work. That’s what you get for staging an adaptation of Les Liaisons Dangereuses by the late German grump Heiner Müller. It went beyond Christopher Hampton’s titillation and dug into the grimy part of the psyche that has made the act of hurting vulnerable people a pastime of the ages. Excellent peformances by Sharon Gardner and Troy Dunn.
11.?Danny and the Deep Blue Sea, Elephant Theatre Works, Hollywood. Deborah Dir and Daniel De Weldon’s electric performances slid right past the insufficiencies of John Patrick Shanley’s two-character play about lost souls discovering, losing and rediscovering each other. Michael Arabian directed the vivid, smoky mise en scène.