End-of-the-year theater roundups are not exactly computer science. Rather, they are subjective tricks of the memory filtered by the taste, temperament and aesthetic sensibility peculiar to the rememberer. While 2015 offered its share of scintillating Los Angeles stage riches, to this temperamental observer it proved all too typical in one troubling respect: the continuing timidity of L.A. companies when it comes to tackling new plays. New work rooted in the community and the risk-taking producers that present it ultimately define — and power — any contemporary art scene. That said, here is an abbreviated recollection of five 2015 shows thrilling enough to remain seared in my memory.
American Falls at Echo Theater Company
Playwright Miki Johnson’s lyrical and intricately constructed 2012 drama took its name from a real place in southeastern Idaho, and though its story — a small town roiled by a shocking tragedy aggravated by excesses of drinking and drug abuse — is decidedly modern, Johnson’s themes of memory, the intersection of social and personal traumas, and the fundamentally life-affirming and healing nature of storytelling go back to the Greeks. Director Chris Fields' beautifully composed and smartly schematized staging showcased a pinpoint ensemble (including magnetic performances by Leandro Cano, Karl Herlinger, Deborah Puette and Barbara Tarbuck) and ably realized the calculated mix of offhand humor and harrowing horror that drove American Falls’ unrelenting momentum to its explosive, albeit hopeful, conclusion.
Hamlet-Mobile at Hollywood Fringe Festival
Some of the most wildly inventive work of 2015 turned up at the sprawling Hollywood Fringe Festival, which offers nearly 300 productions in three weeks each year and gives new meaning to the expression that if you throw enough mud at the wall, some of it will stick. In the case of Hamlet-Mobile, writer-director Lauren Ludwig and co-creator Monica Miklas’ extreme, audience-immersive Shakespeare on wheels, what stuck was pure gold. Staged in the cargo area of a somewhat battered Ford Econoline (transformed by production designer Shing Khor into a wood-paneled, tchotchke-crammed, gypsy caravan), Ludwig’s series of eight 10-minute-long riffs on the Bard’s Danish revenge tragedy played to one- and two-people audiences. Collectively, the playlets told the backstory of a cultish, itinerant “micro-theater” troupe — a modern-day equivalent to Hamlet’s traveling players. Individually, the in-your-lap intimacy of the performances by Hamlet-Mobile’s superb cast (J.B. Waterman, Lizzie Prestel, Heather Ann Gottlieb and Hunter Seagroves) gave the merest eyelash flicker the profoundly unsettling, thought-reading intensity usually reserved for the extreme close-up of cinema.
2015 Solo Creation Festival: Remix at Son of Semele Theater
The second year of Son of Semele’s experimental incubator for short, single-performer works founded by artistic director Matthew McCray and producer Ashley Steed again delivered on its aim of extending the avant-garde reach of the venerable one-person show. The best of this year’s Solo Creation Festival received a soaring encore in the festival-capping double bill of its “Remix” weekend: Freebird Goes to Mars featured Betsy Moore (with co-creator/director Alex Suha) in a fierce and fearless portrait of Betty, a middle-aged, plain-speaking Walmart cashier. As Betty packed up her belongings and a lifetime of wistful memories of her six husbands and her institutionalization for chronic alcoholism, the piece’s humanity and genuine fondness for its subject unexpectedly blasted off into a more poetic realm — and an inspired Stanley Kubrick homage — that included Moore performing an unforgettable zero-g ballet to Johann Strauss’ “Blue Danube Waltz.” Objectify was writer-performer Suzan Averitt’s sly multimedia descent into the fever-dream of commodity fetishism, which featured Averitt as a frazzled and wildly unkempt museum docent known only as Not Madeleine. The playfully Proustian allusion set director Jeff G. Peters’ nearly bare stage for what became a literal “memory play” as Not Madeleine treated the audience to a deliriously outrageous guided tour of an emotionally barren life defined solely by her relationship to things.
The Quick and the Dead by Speakeasy Society
With The Quick and the Dead, the first installment of what is being billed as the Johnny Cycle, directors Julianne Just and Genevieve Gearhart and composer-writer Chris Porter unveiled the Speakeasy Society’s most ambitious and artistically satisfying foray into experimental, site-specific immersive theater. An adaptation of Dalton Trumbo’s classic 1939 antiwar novel, Johnny Got His Gun, staged at Pasadena’s venerable American Legion Post 13, the production’s atomized, controlled anarchy proved the perfect choice to power a hallucinatory memory play about the literal disembodiment of its horrifically maimed protagonist. By placing the audience in the action — and even having audience members “act” some of Johnny’s lines and serve as fellow conscriptees — The Quick and the Dead ingeniously foregrounded the authoritarian nature and ideological coercion of all narratives in a way only possible with an immersive mise-en-scène.
The Homecoming at Pacific Resident Theater
Director Guillermo Cienfuegos’ remarkably accomplished revival of The Homecoming, Harold Pinter’s 1965 masterwork of elliptical ambiguity and casual savagery, served as a welcome reminder of the long shadow that Pinter (along with Samuel Beckett) continues to cast over the English-language stage. The play famously details the visit by a philosophy professor (Trent Dawson) and his wife (Lesley Fera) to the professor’s North London childhood home and the violently feral pack of loutishly lumpen misogynists that passes for his family. Anchored by a superb ensemble (which included Jason Downs, Jude Ciccolella, Anthony Foux and Steve Spiro), it was Fera’s wonderful air of patronizing weariness in her scenes with Dawson and its devastating evocation of the couple’s emotionally sterile marriage that almost effortlessly made probable the seemingly unthinkable choice she makes that turns the household on its head.