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10 Best L.A. Plays of 2013

Neil McGowan's Lone-Anon at Rogue Machine
Neil McGowan's Lone-Anon at Rogue Machine
PHOTO BY JOHN FLYNN

We made it through 2013 and we're only slightly the worse for it, despite having seen Olga Garay-English (among the most effective local arts leaders in a decade) forced out of her post heading the city's Cultural Affairs department. It was through Garay-English's efforts that countless local ensembles were able to travel to Europe. It was Garay-English who was instrumental in raising the funds to bring the terrific Radar L.A. Festival here in 2011 and 2013.

We've also seen the 99-seat-and-under Open Fist and Celebration theaters lose their Hollywood digs to gentrification. Is it just coincidence that after theaters move to streets in troubled neighborhoods — from Hollywood's Santa Monica Boulevard to Mid-City's Pico to North Hollywood's Lankershim — within five years, property values are rising there, pressuring those theaters out? Theaters that aren't major institutions are rarely allowed or able to stick around in areas with prime real estate — notable exceptions being the Sierra Madre Playhouse in Sierra Madre and South Pasadena's Fremont Centre Theatre.

Beverly Hills has one of the region's highest tax bases and has long considered live theater to be a kind of stain on its manicured streets. Until this year, the only enduring venues there were the Beverly Hills Playhouse (more of a teaching facility and laboratory than full-time theater) and Theatre 40, which lives in the cradle of Beverly Hills High School.

Perhaps feeling this dearth, Wallis Annenberg led funding for a performing arts complex, enshrined with her name. That venue opened theater programming this year, with a locally directed production of Miklos Laszlo's romantic comedy Parfumerie, adapted (by E.P. Dowdall) from the source work for the movies The Shop Around the Corner and You've Got Mail.

Next year it's bringing Kneehigh Theatre's mash-up of Noël Coward's play Still Life with the screenplay to the movie Brief Encounter.

The center aims to be a school, a production company and a host to visiting arts companies. I hope it broadens its vision for theater beyond the scope of old Hollywood movies, and I hope it thrives.

This year's top 10 list is an indicator more of my taste than some objective declaration of excellence, which is always illusory. I'm a little pissed off at the direction our culture is taking in terms of, for instance, our penchant for diversion while the government spies on us. Hence my preference this year for snarky satires that got to the heart of some annoyances that I'd wrongly thought were symptoms of personal crankiness rather than a larger social malaise. For example:

Years to the Day: Allen Barton's gorgeous 90-minute play (Skylight Theatre Company at the Beverly Hills Playhouse) was a reunion in which two friends in their early 40s (Michael Yavnieli and Jeff LeBeau) got together at a restaurant and wound up wrestling over their histories, who did what to whom and why. This sounds pro forma, but it wasn't, thanks to beautifully tender performances (directed by Joel Polis) and a writing style that had all the shape of party chatter, minus any specific names. For example, when they argued over a movie, the rage of one was against "such and such an actress" — they didn't mention the actress's name, but we could plug in whomever we wished, from Kate Winslet to Jodie Foster, it didn't matter. The joke was on the shape of every dumbass argument over every dumbass movie ever made. Those kind of jokes also covered every corner of social media, poking fun at our iPad and Android phone society. Two guys arguing pedantically but with wry wit was belligerently anti-theatrical and also anti-tech. I found that belligerence pleasingly defiant. Imagine a play by George Bernard Shaw written in the 21st century.

Lone-Anon: Neil McGowan's Orwellian social satire played late nights at Rogue Machine and was set five years in the future. The premise: The NSA and/or FBI has set up a watch list for people with anti-social tendencies. For example, you get invited to a party on Facebook and you don't show, so you wind up on the list for court-ordered rehabilitation — because, naturally, terrorists don't go to parties. The play was a group-therapy session that invited laughter, but only through the pit of one's stomach.

Open House: Shem Bitterman's surreal comedy at Skylight Theatre in Los Feliz was about the relationship between the worst real estate agent ever (Robert Cicchini) and a potential buyer (Eve Gordon) of the Fairfax District house he's trying to sell. Handily staged by Steve Zuckerman, the cat-and-mouse game became Dali-esque: The agent literally watched the sunbeams cross the room while he waited for his client. The play ultimately was schematic, but its attachment of desperation to real estate spoke clearly to our times.

And in a more classical vein:

RII: Over at Pasadena's Boston Court Theatre, director-adapter Jessica Kubzansky pared down Shakespeare's Richard II, then staged it on a set of platforms with only three actors (John Sloan, Paige Lindsey White, Jim Ortlieb) playing all the roles. Her RII placed the play in a fresh and cogent light, making King Richard's downfall visceral through Kubzansky's piercingly stark vision.

Pericles: A Noise Within's rendition of Shakespeare's second-tier melodrama, directed by Julia Rodriguez-Elliot, was masterful for its clarity, its pageantry and its costumes (by Angela Balogh Calin). The production made a soap opera fairy tale look almost profound.

Looking back in anger:

One Night in Miami: Kemp Powers' play at Rogue Machine imagined what might have been had Cassius Clay, Malcolm X, Sam Cook and Jim Brown gotten together in a motel on the night Clay defeated Sonny Liston in 1964. Speculative history aside, the production (directed by Carl Cofield) soared on the wings of the ensemble (Burl Moseley, Jason Delane, Matt Jones, Jason E. Kelley, Giovanni Adams, Damu Malik, Jah Shams).

Rodney King: Over at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, as part of the impressive Radar L.A. Fest, Roger Guenveur Smith performed his poetic, balletic homage to the man who unwittingly set L.A. afire. It was a rhapsodic, irony-saturated performance.

A play that defies classification:

Sexsting: Doris Baizley's play was performed by Katselas Theatre Company at the Skylight in Los Feliz. It concerned the complex issues involved in an FBI agent (Gregory Itzin) trying to ensnare a sex predator (JD Cullum) by posing as a teenage girl. Under Jim Holmes' direction, the men were stationed in front of computers on different sides of the stage. You wouldn't think two men typing into computers would be scintillating, yet the agonies both were enduring came across the proscenium just fine. The work resembled a docudrama looking into dark recesses of the soul, bereft of judgment and ultimately compassionate.

And three plays added choreography to classical texts:

Alcestis: Writer-director Nancy Keystone's adaptation of the Greek myth at Boston Court Theatre was about a wife who offers to die in place of her husband in order to placate the gods. Keystone's adaptation for her Critical Mass Performance Group was filled with striking tableaux as it followed the consequences of the wife's decision, as she waited for death after making that fateful sacrifice.

Track 3: Tina Kronis had similar fun with her Theatre Movement Bazaar troupe, using as source material an adaptation of Chekhov's Three Sisters by her husband, Richard Alger. The adaptation was performed at Bootleg Theatre, South Coast Repertory and the Radar L.A. Festival. With Kronis' arch choreography combined with Alger's terse repetitions, it was a bit like watching Chekhov's play as though it were inside a Swiss watch.

Dancing on the Edge: Denise Devin staged a series of entrancing movement pieces, revealing the extraordinary multifaceted talents of the company that produced the show, Zombie Joe's Underground.

ZJU'S goth tableaux in its classic show Urban Death are currently being performed and celebrated in Cape Town, South Africa — the latest example of local productions traveling. John Pollono's Small Engine Repair transferred from Rogue Machine to New York's Off-Broadway, where it became a hit; Stephen Sachs' Bakersfield Mist, which premiered at Hollywood's tiny Fountain Theatre, has been optioned for a West End run in London. Ghost Road Company performed in Poland earlier this year.

These are the kinds of events that incrementally put a theater city like ours on the map.

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