With apprehension-stirring changes crashing into both our country and our local theater scene at a faster pace than we’ve seen recently, 2005 was a year of fanfare and controversy over Center Theater Group’s changing leaders (in an opening salvo, new head Michael Ritchie trashed the Taper’s play-development labs), and one during which the L.A. Times finally picked up a lead theater critic (Charles McNulty from the Village Voice) to fill a chair left vacant for four years. As McNulty arrives, veteran local stage reporter and critic Don Shirley moves on from the paper of record. The past year was yet another saturated with thoughtful plays about Iraq (Stuff Happens, Mark Taper Forum; Nine Parts of Desire, Geffen Playhouse; What I Heard About Iraq, Fountain Theater; Behind the Veil, Frantic Redhead Productions at Los Angeles Theater Center; Flags, Odyssey Theater; The Four Dervishes, Ghost Road Theater Company). It also proved to be the year of Bertolt Brecht, heavy with indignation and irony. Three productions of Brecht’s anti-war epic, Mother Courage, played locally (Antaeus Company, Sons of Beckett Theater Company and Theater @ Boston Court). There were two productions of his social-injustice musical, The Threepenny Opera (Open Fist Theater and Odyssey Theater), a musical comedy about thugs and love, Happy End, at Pacific Resident Theater, and his morality play, The Caucasian Chalk Circle, at South Coast Rep. Macbeth’s bloody machinations also struck chords in four different productions (BIGHEAD at the Vineland Theater, Knightsbridge Theater, MET Theater and the Court Theater). In one of the busiest years in memory, the biggest disappointment had to be the Edge of the World Theater Festival, with its several dozen poorly attended shows — even the good ones lacked the edge that was supposed to be the festival’s defining quality, and all were crammed into the tawdry confines of downtown’s city-owned, undermaintained Los Angeles Theater Center.
I liked Nancy Keystone’s Apollo: Lebensraum at the Kirk Douglas for its weave of Holocaust history and the Apollo space program. I also liked the acting in Lost Angels Theater Company’s production of Tracy Letts’ Killer Joe at the Gardner Stages. Glendale’s A Noise Within hit top form in Sabin Epstein’s production of The School for Wives, and the newish Independent Shakespeare Company staged a beguiling, alfresco Hamlet at Barnsdall Park. And I almost always enjoy the macabre, tinsel-and-glue theatrics at Zombie Joe’s Underground in the Valley; the acting at Theater Neo, Road Theater Company and Theater Tribe, also in the Valley; and the intellectual edginess at City Garage, out where the surf laps the edge of the world. That said, here’s my Top 11 list of 2005 productions:
1. “I’m Gonna Kill the President!”: A Federal Offense The writers’ and actors’ names were blacked out in the program, for security reasons. The audience was told to meet at a secret place, where it was ushered, in small groups, to a secret location (a makeshift bar) for this political parody. Some audience member loaned his cell phone to an actor, who called the White House while the crowd chanted the name of the play. Minutes later, either the LAPD or perfect actors in perfect costumes busted in, asking for everybody’s ID. National Security. Terrifying. People were calling their lawyers from their cells. Didn’t you know you’re supposed to carry ID everywhere you go? The next day, the Weekly and the Times got e-mails urging them to publicize the “story” of the show that got busted. After following up with the police, the Times reported that the LAPD had no knowledge of any theater bust that night, and thereby killed the joke, and the show’s point. Nice work, fellas.
2. Chronicles: A Lamentation The best offering in UCLA Live’s International Theater Festival, and the most stirring, soulful production seen in the city. Poland’s Song of the Goat Theater offered a choreographed chorale that was simply a testament to the spiritual power of sound and motion.
3. The Brothers Karamazov Circle X Theater Company returns after a long hiatus, with the best example of why our theater companies should take the time to figure out what they’re doing and why, and then utilize all the resources of their talent and taste. All it takes is one full production like this every year or two to keep a company on the map. This is Anthony Clarvoe’s adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s novel, and it’s still running at [Inside] the Ford. Call (213) 804-5491.
4. Permanent Collection Thomas Gibbons’ play concerns a newly appointed African-American director of a private East Coast art museum that turns into a house of race cards. This excellent production by Robey Theater Company and Greenway Arts Alliance was picked up by Center Theater Group, which is reopening the show mid-January at Culver City’s Kirk Douglas Theater. Call (213) 628-2772.
5. Yellowman In a perfectly modulated production directed by Shirley Jo Finney, Dael Orlandersmith’s drama about two South Carolina families and the politics ingrained in the subtlest shades of skin color was superbly played out by Deidrie Henry and Chris Butler at the Fountain Theater.
6. Macbeth Bighead Theatricalities rented a warehouse by some railroad tracks in the Valley, and populated it with rolling bleachers. Director Eric Tucker then had the ensemble cart the audience to different corners of the space, which were then constantly reconfigured for scene changes. It was like an amusement-park ride without the hydraulics — a minimalist, paint-splattered, rollicking production that was also well acted. That always helps.
7. Collected Stories Most theater folk are familiar with Donald Margulies’ much praised two-hander about the tension that grows when a writing student outshines her teacher by “borrowing” from the mentor’s personal memories. The beauty in MagnaCarta Theater Company’s revival lay in exquisite performances by Jayne Taini and Karen Zumsteg, complemented by the lovingly detailed production design.
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8. Happy End Considered source material for Guys and Dolls, Brecht’s musical, staged by Dan Bonnell for Pacific Resident Theater, knew exactly when to wink and when to stop — sustaining for two hours a whimsy that never slid into flippancy.
9. Radio Golf August Wilson clearly left us in his prime. Of his Pittsburgh Cycle of plays, this was his most probing look into real estate as an emblem of the American social divide, and the contortions we undergo to rationalize that divide. A lovely production at the Mark Taper Forum.
10. Pera Palas Sinan Ünel’s epic has three generations of westerners trying to fathom the mysteries of the East in and around an Istanbul hotel. A sparkling production by Michael Michetti for Theater @ Boston Court.
11. The Wild Party John LaChiusa and George C. Wolfe’s Algonquin-era musical about waiting for the end of the world, pre-Crash, may have been written before 9/11, but this year it sure seemed to tap the prevailing Zeitgeist. Daniel Henning’s staging for his Blank Theater Company starred Daisy Eagan, Jane Lanier and Valarie Pettiford in a splendidly acted and choreographed reflection of civilization crumbling under the weight of martinis and predatory indulgences.