Top 10 L.A. Theater Experiences of 2011
This past June witnessed the week that was, with the nationwide theater organization Theatre Communications Group celebrating its 50th anniversary by holding its annual conference in Los Angeles — the first time it had ever convened the powwow here.
That means hundreds of America's theater professionals hung out near the downtown Biltmore to attend seminars and workshops, share ideas, renew contacts and — see what goes on our stages? Well, sort of. If they were attending any theater at all, TCG attendees mostly attended the conference-spawned Radar L.A. festival of experimental work curated by representatives from the Public Theatre in New York with our own Center Theatre Group and REDCAT theaters. Radar L.A., a West Coast cousin of the Public Theatre's Under the Radar Festival, featured a Pacific Rim emphasis. This doesn't exactly account for, um, Dublin's The Company (OK, the director was from South America), or the Rude Mechs from Austin, Texas — but there was a welcome tilt toward local troupes (including L.A. Poverty Department , Moving Arts and Pomo Afro Homos).
What truly went under the radar this summer was the second annual Hollywood Fringe festival, ill-timed to perform during much the same 10-day spread as Radar L.A., as well as an Asian-American theater conference and the Los Angeles Film Festival. Does nobody in this town use their calendar app?
The Hollywood Fringe is, by design, a noncurated festival, which means what comes in the door goes on the stage. The majority of what came in was one-person shows — which happened more because they're financially expedient than because they're fringy. Still, there were sparks of brilliance leading to moments that linger: Lost Moon Radio, presenting unusually clever, wry sketches and songs as part of a faux radio show, backed up by a five-piece band; John Grady's lovely one-man show Fear Factor: The Canine Edition, about a man's love affair with his dog; and sound artist Adam Tinkle's tender "musicplay" solo saga A Mess of Things, about his hoarder grandfather needing to downsize.
From the Department of Moving and Shaking: Gypsy troupes Ensemble Studio Theater — L.A. and Circle X Theatre Company joined forces to lease a new home in Atwater Village and started their first season there. The highlight was a two-play festival of beautifully produced works by local scribe Tom Jacobson: an L.A. history play, The Chinese Massacre, and family drama House of the Rising Son, about the essence of being outcast.
Also trying out new spaces this year were Santa Monica's City Garage, which lost its 15-year-old lease and has so far cobbled together a relocation agreement for Track 16 in the Bergamot Station art gallery complex. Next up for the company is Neil LaBute's Filthy Talk for Troubled Times, opening Jan. 6.
Meanwhile, the Pasadena Playhouse is back from the brink, and back to putting on plays, while nearby classical rep company A Noise Within fulfilled its years-in-the-making dream of moving on from Glendale's Masonic Lodge. A decade of fundraisers led up to ANW's move to east Pasadena, where Shakespeare (Twelfth Night) and Eugene O'Neill (Desire Under the Elms) have done their dance under the looming watch of the San Gabriel Mountains.
Here's our list of the best experiences on the L.A. stage this year:
10. If you don't believe in L.A. theater as an incubator, consider the good reviews John Fleck's solo show Mad Women is getting in New York (it opened earlier at the Skylight in Los Feliz), or Anthony Sacre's solo comedy story of his marriage and career, The Next Best Thing, which took home the Best Storyteller prize at New York's United Solo Theatre Festival after premiering at this year's Hollywood Fringe. Or Stephen Sachs' Bakersfield Mist, which, after playing for months at the Fountain Theatre, has been optioned for productions in London's West End and in New York.
9. The Getty Villa deserves mention for its programming of ancient Greco-Roman or Greco-Roman-influenced works, such as Anne Bogart's staging of Trojan Women (After Euripides) for her SITI Company (adapted by Jocelyn Clark), in its Malibu amphitheater. The play had a stylish earnestness that teetered on melodrama, but it hasn't escaped my memory.
8. The Broad Stage in Santa Monica was another credible presenter, from Peter Brook's Spartan staging of Beckett (Rockaby) and Dostoyevsky (The Legend of the Grand Inquisitor) to F. Murray Abraham's nicely modulated Shylock in The Merchant of Venice.
7. The California International Theatre Festival wended its way in from Calabasas to the Los Angeles Theatre Center. Good to see another producer of solid international fare, though less dynamic than much of the work at REDCAT and Radar L.A., and there are still some curatorial issues for this growing, promising enterprise.
6. Darin Dahms was a director of note, at Theatre of NOTE, for a memorably exotic production of B. Walker Samson's new play, Alceste. A spin on the myth of Euridice in the underworld, both play and production were goofy and elegiac in their pleasingly upside-down questioning of love, and sacrifice for the one you love.
5. Director Bart DeLorenzo had a good year on local stages, with Len Jenkins' noir-mystery Margo Veil for Evidence Room at the Odyssey Theatre. Even more striking, however, was his staging of Justin Tanner's best comedy in years, Day Drinkers, presented by the Odyssey Theatre. The topflight ensemble featured Danielle Kennedy and Tom Fitzpatrick as alcoholic geezers at odds and ends, trying to negotiate the exigencies of romance and survival. The tone was just about perfect, swerving from bitterness to tenderness with the abandon of a drunk rolling down a hill.
4. John Pollono's messy, contrived but explosive one-act, Small Engine Repair, for Rogue Machine Theatre, about a testosterone-fueled late-night meeting of buddies in a car-repair shop. Through the layers of its character manipulations, it exposed the workings and misworkings of modern social aspects, from the Internet to the treatment of women, directed with almost excruciating precision by Andrew Block.
3. David Harrower's Blackbird featuring Sam Anderson and Corryn Cummins as, respectively, a convicted child molester and the victim who returns to confront him years later, presented by Rogue Machine and directed by Robin Larsen.
2. The Hollywood Fringe tent, a huge canopy with a bar and late-night karaoke, located for the 10-day summer festival in the Santa Monica Boulevard parking lot of Art/Works. What our theater lacks is a centralized watering hole, and here was one, at least for 10 days, where the community could imagine it actually was a community: drinking, networking, discussing what they were doing and what they'd seen. It was like social media, but without the media.
1. In the Radar L.A. fest in June, Chile's Teatro el Blanco presented writer-director Guillermo Calderón's three-character drama, Neva, about the anxiety of Anton Chekhov's widow, Olga Knipper, wrestling with guilt from playing at the Moscow Art Theatre while her husband was dying of tuberculosis in Yalta, and while the Russian revolution was fomenting. As Olga, Trinidad Gonzalez gave a performance with the full blast of range, from slapstick comedy to stridency to the tenderest of pathos, and the production, bathed in soft candlelight, was nothing short of a conjuring.
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