How convenient it would be in describing the year's best stage events to roll in with an agenda: that local productions were better than imports; or that the smaller theaters did better work on average than the larger ones; or the inverse, that because of their larger budgets, the midsize and larger theaters offered more memorable stage experiences than the smaller venues.
None of this is true. In many ways, due to overhead, midsize theaters face more financial constrictions than the smaller ones. Some of the shows booked in larger venues were magnificent (Elevator Repair Service's Gatz at REDCAT), as were many homegrown local offerings (Stoneface at Sacred Fools, a new adaptation of The Government Inspector at Boston Court). From readings and workshops attended over the year, it's also evident that locally and probably nationally, some of the best work being created isn't making it to the stage. But the reasons for that are another story.
Some welcome institutional enhancements in 2012: UCLA's Center for Art of Performance brought back its international theater festival. The noncurated, open-hearted Hollywood Fringe got better, and will reappear in expanded form in summer 2013. City Garage, evicted from its digs behind Santa Monica's Third Street Promenade, landed on its feet at Bergamot Station. And the Radar L.A. festival — a highlight of the 2011 season — returns next year.
Though we appear to be in an era of retrenchment, when risk taking is a lower priority than survival, when mediocrity has the upper hand over rigor and novelty, the region's theater showed just enough flashes of brilliance to keep even the most jaded scene-watchers coming back for more.
Here, in no particular order, is a sampling of theater moments from 2012 worth remembering, punctuated by the growth industries of dance-theater and of actors narrating their own stories.
10. Beckett at Center Theatre Group: Sam couldn't have looked more spry, agile and timeless than in traditional, top-flight stagings of Waiting for Godot at the Mark Taper Forum and Krapp's Last Tape at the Kirk Douglas Theatre. The former was a local creation: Michael Arabian directed Alan Mandell, Barry McGovern, James Cromwell and Hugo Armstrong. John Hurt, looking strikingly like Beckett himself, played the title role at the Douglas, staged by Michael Colgan of the Gate Theatre, Dublin.
9. Borrowing from his New York staging, David Cromer turned Thornton Wilder's Our Town into a whimsical, music-laced, intimate affair with actors racing through aisles — landing the audience directly in the middle of Grover's Corners. Helen Hunt narrated the event with droll charm at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica.
8. Local experimental troupe Son of Semele Ensemble generated some Pinter-esque iciness in Brit playwright Martin Crimp's The City. Despite smidgens of artifice in some of the performances, Matthew McCray's staging penetrated an almost terrifying void in the family life of a solipsistic translator, played by Sarah Rosenberg.
7. Playwright Richard Alger and director-choreographer Tina Kronis' Theatre Movement Bazaar transferred to the stage the Chekhov short story "Ward 6," about the descent of a mental-hospital administrator into the confines of the institution he runs. Called The Treatment, it was performed at the Theatre at Boston Court in Pasadena. With its percussive rhythms, sharply choreographed gestures, wonderful performances and smart adaptation of the source material, the performance embodied the best of "dance-theater."
6. Dance-theater played a larger role than in recent memory on local stages: It reappeared in Shirley Jo Finney's gorgeous, sexually charged staging of Tarell Alvin McCraney's In the Red and Brown Water, at Hollywood's Fountain Theatre. As in The Treatment, the actors narrated and performed their roles simultaneously. Here they also sang stirring chorales. Lithe Diarra Kilpatrick, portraying the disillusioned, sweet-natured track athlete in a mythical housing project in the American South, turned in one of the truly great performances of the year, ably supported by the likes of Peggy Blow, Iona Morris, Gilbert Glenn Brown, Theodore Perkins and Dorian Christian Baucum. (The show has been extended into February.)
5. Actors narrating their own story was also a key component in the eight hours (including intermissions and a dinner break) dedicated to Elevator Repair Service's staging of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby at REDCAT, titled Gatz. Scott Shepherd portrayed the main narrator, and Jim Fletcher the title character, both situated in some decrepit 1980s company on the slide. Hence the desire of Shepherd's company drone/narrator — with a desktop computer on the fritz — to enter Fitzgerald's opulent, pre-Depression Long Island by doing what so few do in our era — pick up a book and start turning the pages. The rest of the company started sliding from company employees into the narrative as Fitzgerald's characters. More to the point, the durational experience invited us to reconsider our era of rushed experiences, and what it means to let time unfold.
4. French Stewart and Joe Fria doubled as mature and young Buster Keaton in Vanessa Claire Stewart's riveting new play, Stoneface, at Sacred Fools Theater, about MGM's Golden Age and its rebuked silent-film clown attempting to secure his crumbling legacy. Ryan Johnson accompanied the action on a spinet, while Ben Rock and Anthony Backman's projection design permitted the live actors to step into the movie screen and dissolve into celluloid.
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3. I really enjoyed George Bernard Shaw's 1919 Heartbreak House in the open air at Theatricum Botanicum. Nothing about Shaw's creaky yet timely comedy or Ellen Geer's direction of actors such as William Dennis Hunt and Melora Marshall was innovative, yet I found myself grinning in delight throughout the production, which revealed why Shaw, though a renowned windbag, also was a wit.
2. Back at Boston Court, in a co-production with Furious Theatre Company, Nikolai Gogol's farce The Government Inspector — a comedy that almost never works because its satire is so locally Russian and its humor is so redundant — got an updated, raucous and rat-smart spin by Oded Gross. It's the story of a con man who's mistaken by the local town leaders as the dreaded "government inspector" — opening a faucet of mistaken identities and corruption. Adam Haas Hunter in the title role served up another of the great performances of the year, bounding across the stage like a living cartoon and not missing a physical or verbal beat. Tina Haatainen-Jones' costumes were beautifully lurid, and Stefan Novinski directed.
1. Shared honors here, because we weren't supposed to go beyond 10 (and there are plenty more): When Red Bastard first showed up at the Hollywood Fringe, Eric Davis came onstage wrapped in a kind of red body stocking, with only his calves, feet and white-painted face exposed. Red paint around his eyes enhanced the demonic glint of a psychotic chicken that would inform his show, co-written with directors Deanna Fleysher and Sue Morrison. In his ballooning costume, he moved ever so gracefully, belittling his adoring audience, until one young patron left after being insulted. Davis, often self-deprecating, mostly hilarious, embodied the evil clown, and the dangers of trusting strangers.
A far more somber performance unfolded at REDCAT, this time under the auspices of local troupe Poor Dog Group, re-enacted through Jesse Bonnell's lugubrious direction and, again, some evocative interpretive dance. The Murder Ballad, based on Jelly Roll Morton's extended, gruesome and profane ballad — which played throughout — concerned a woman (Jessica Emmanuel) imprisoned for murdering a rival whom her "man" had been visiting (it also featured Jesse Saler). Sharing many of the qualities of Gatz and In the Red and Brown Water, The Murder Ballad used theater's living three dimensions to engage us in an act of hypnosis, so that we could barely feel time pass.