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You've Got Hate Mail

I can't speak for my colleagues, but for me 1998 was a year filled with tedious melodrama, warmed-over camp and unfulfilled promises. And then there was the theater season. While not exactly an annus horribilis, 1998 bore an uncanny (and suspicious) resemblance to 1997, and this very familiarity made it contemptible. Yet everything had begun so reassuringly. Politically, after all, the heart of L.A. theater still beat an inch or two to the left of center, providing us with a season of empowered heroes (solo performers who had overcome a host of hellish parents and infirmities), martyrs aplenty (Bosnian war orphans, gays in and out of the military), the requisite villains (ill-mannered Nazis, Bible-waving Southerners) and, happily, nudity (gays in and out of the military, Michael Sargent's Steel Town). Perhaps the only goal of theater should be to spit on familiarity.

Last year did feature one novelty for Weekly critics -- the appearance on our computer screens of electronic complaint correspondence (more informally known as "hate mail"). I quote this excerpt from one sullen e-mail: "Every time I get shut down by an ISP my spam karate steps-up a level in sophistication. I now unleash this new karate on you, smikulan@laweekly.com. You all thought you could stop me by complaining to Earthlink. You were mistaken." Properly chastened by this warning, I offer 10 examples that mostly contradict the pessimism I've just expressed, and which, I hope, presage a new year in which theater is home to the reckless, offensive and, above all, the unpredictable.

Best Take on American Culture by a Foreign Transvestite: Eddie Izzard, Dress To Kill, Tiffany Theater.

Tart, smart and upstart, Izzard has no sense of segue or of how long he's been rambling about any given subject -- and is absolutely mesmerizing. This English comedian tells us more about our coun-try in a few lines comparing British and American movies than could a book full of cultural essayists.

Best Take on American Culture by an Alcoholic Heterosexual: Christopher Titus, Norman Rockwell Is Bleeding, Hudson Theater.

This category should properly be a draw between ex-drinkers Titus and Bos-ton's Jimmy Tingle, whose show Jimmy Tingle's Uncommon Sense appeared at the Coast Playhouse, but a tie always goes to the runner -- in this case, the homeboy from Northern Cali. The hell-spawn of the California suburb, Titus, in his one-man show, made us thrillingly uncomfortable the awful, early moment we realized that this was one weirdo we very well might not like.

Best Solo Biography of a Nerd: Chester ChesterChesterChesterChester, by George Shea, Fremont Center.

Bearing an unsettling resemblance to Orville Redenbacher, Shea beautifully impersonated the inventor of the Xerox copying machine, and with him a lost America of optimism and purpose.

Best Reason for Banning Royal National Theatre Presentations of Ibsen: An Enemy of the People.

With its IKEA-showroom set and Ian McKellen's braying portrayal of Dr. Stockmann, Trevor Nunn's production demonstrated how the American disease of trivialization has infected even this storied company.

Best Putdown of L.A. Not Written by a Sunday New York Times Stringer: Marga Gomez, Jaywalker, at Highways.

The stories of a non-driving lesbian as she hits TV casting calls during pilot season in a city built for cars made for one of the year's best satires, delivered by a remarkable soloist.

Most Bizarre Solo Show About Walt Disney: An All-American Animator: A Story of a Man and a Mouse, Lionstar Theater.

Francis Creighton's solo show (since renamed Walt and Me) was inspired by the performer's childhood encounter with Uncle Walt at a stockholder's meeting. Creighton's homage is truly a one-man show: He is the only house staff member present -- handing out programs and closing the theater door before positioning himself under the stage's fixed lighting to begin his performance.

Most Wondrous Set: Gary Smoot's stage of surprises for Great Men of Science Nos. 21 & 22, Circle X Theater at the Lost Studio.

Smoot created Rube Goldberg­like contraptions -- along with air-pumped frogs and clockwork ducks -- to propel Glen Berger's charming historical comedy. His efforts were abetted by clever lighting and costumes by David Weingarten and M.E. Dunn, respectively.

Most Challenging Political Play: The Water Children, by Wendy MacLeod, Matrix Theater.

A story about a feminist actress whose job-hunting leads her into an anti-choice TV commercial, MacLeod's play was that rare thing on the Los Angeles stage -- a drama that made us reconsider our comfortable social beliefs and never let us off the hook for holding them.

Young L.A. Playwright To Watch: Peter J. Nieves.

The author of such baffling, sexually charged and surreal pieces as The Toilet and Will Williams has made going to the theater a new and exciting proposition again.

Best Biblical Special Effect: Thorn and Bloom, by Michael Patrick King, Court Theater.

The moment when blood starts trickling down the forehead and face of Jesus (played by Chris Sarandon) from under his crown of thorns, when his Beverly Hills lunch date confesses to being gay.