Go True West. Just when the local theater season was looking as dismal as can be remembered, along came Joe Fria, Ben Simonetti, Mami Arizona and director Anthony Sandoval’s send-up of all things theatrical, starting with Sam Shepard’s play True West. Clowns Fria and Simonetti hadn’t gotten past the first 15 lines before being interrupted by Arizona on percussion, or by their own short-circuited impulses, forcing an evening of multiple replays of Shepard’s precious poetics, in styles ranging from Grand Guignol to kabuki. With the actors occasionally perched on tiny chairs planted next to each other and angled sideways on two legs at a 45-degree slope, the comedians still never lost a beat. Memories of Bill Irwin and David Shiner’s brilliant Fool Moon — also a play about nothing at all but physical dexterity and lunatic bliss — came tumbling back. Future Stars of Hollywood and Associates (their joke, not mine) at the Lillian Theater.
Copenhagen. If Go True West demonstrated that a play is nothing without the actors, this touring production of Michael Frayn’s riveting unsolved mystery demonstrated just the reverse. Concerning nuclear physicist and Nazi collaborator Werner Heisenberg’s (Hank Stratton) visit to his Jewish mentor, Niels Bohr (Len Cariou), in occupied Denmark, this play is so good, actors who simply say their lines trippingly can make it fly. It’s hardly surprising that Broadway vets Cariou and Stratton did so, but Mariette Hartley’s smart, dignified portrayal of Bohr’s wife made the pleasing argument that TV stars can have theater chops too. Wilshire Theater (still playing).
The Birthday Party. The Matrix Theater Company consists of nothing but TV actors with stage chops, as proved in Andrew Robinson’s pristine revival of Harold Pinter’s early play. There can be no argument with Robert Symonds and Angela Paton as the mindless homeowners with a room to let in the south of England, or with their tortured renter (Jay Karnes), set upon by thugs Goldberg and McCann (Lawrence Pressman and Morlan Higgins) on the young lout’s birthday. Paton did this same role at LATC more than a decade ago, but here it was both richer and smoother.
Mrs. Feuerstein. Here (inverting Copenhagen’s backdrop) was a raging Jewish would-be academic come to torment former German Nazi sympathizers comfortably resettled as teachers at a private American high school. Murray Mednick’s haunting exercise in linguistic precision was the third of a trilogy of his plays presented by this company, and it hung largely on Roxanne Rogers’ stylish direction, and on the enigmatic, wistful sadness of Maria O’Brien in the title role. Padua Playwrights Productions at 2100 Square Feet.
Fen. That Caryl Churchill’s plays have gotten denser with time was illustrated in City Garage’s fine production of her play about English folklore, The Skriker. But Fen is a comparatively realistic affair, a portrait of agonies among rural British women in a strikingly tender production directed by Stefan Novinski upon a set of dirt. Open Fist Theater.
Two-Headed. As Mary Mara and Colette Kilroy portrayed two Mormon women through 40 years in dusty 19th-century Utah, Julie Jensen’s play showed how the effects of the (offstage) 1857 massacre of a wagon train by Mormon zealots permeated their lives. Veronica Brady’s taut staging brought a Beckettian whimsy to the Spartan backdrop, and the play’s impact still lingers. (Inside) The Ford.
Foot/Mouth. Speaking of Beckett, his story Footfalls was staged along with Luigi Pirandello’s one-act The Man With the Flower in His Mouth at Santa Monica Mall. The actors (on level two) were miked while the audience (on level three) gazed down on them and heard dialogue via headsets. (Innocent passersby appeared quite perplexed.) Though Mark Ravenhill’s Shopping and Fucking caused a stir at the Celebration Theater last year, to watch shopping and decaying was even more disturbing. Cornerstone Theater Company.
Grendel was among the season’s most original and thoughtfully conceived productions (by director Jim Anzide). Beowulf’s nihilistic demigod, Grendel, spent most of the night mocking and literally chewing up romantics in Paul Mullin’s woolly adaptation of John Gardner’s book. In the title role, David Grammer, in overalls, personified the kind of wry, raw energy too often missing from our stages in more studied approaches, while the ensemble offered him spirited support. Circle X Theater Company at the Open Fist Theater.
Underneath the Lintel. In Glen Berger’s one-man play, Brian T. Finney portrayed an insane Dutch librarian whose life crumbles while tracking down the Wandering Jew from a book the timeless fellow has returned overdue. The rest is an etude in loopy logic that wound into a transcendently beautiful parable about breaking free. Actors’ Gang, El Centro Theater.
American Iliad. Just seeing Nixon (Al Rossi) as an innocent child on a purgatory golf course, and Kennedy (David Clennon) as a wheelchair-bound wry fox, both spinning myths inside out, was worth the time spent watching Donald Freed’s incomplete yet intriguing historical fantasia. Victory Theater.
Also worth mentioning: Saved and Don Carlos at Evidence Room; Aquitania by Ziggurat Theater Company; Dame Edna at the Shubert; Lypsinka! at the Tiffany; and Figaro! Pigaro! . . . A Barnyard Musical at the Falcon. —Steven Leigh Morris
Charlie Victor Romeo. Forget watching a train wreck. After seeing this Collective: Unconscious production created by Bob Berger, Patrick Daniels and Irving Gregory, you know that nothing tops a plane crash. This New York import, which played here over the summer (i.e., before September 11), was a deceptively spare (though aurally overwhelming) re-enactment of six flying accidents, taking their dialogue and narrative cues from recovered black boxes. I have never witnessed anything like this terrifying performance, which kept me literally on the edge of my seat as I watched actors standing in for people who did not know that disaster lay just past the next cloud. MacGowan Little Theater, UCLA campus.
The Very Worst of Varla Jean Merman and Varla Jean Merman Is All Washed Up. New York drag majesty Jeffery Roberson brought a new level of debauched pathos to town with these two shows in which Varla Jean Merman, the illegitimate offspring of Ethel Merman and Ernest Borgnine, takes her audiences on a promotional tour of her favorite person — Varla Jean Merman. The wrong blend of Ann-Margret and Wynonna Judd, Varla sang outrageously sexual parodies of show tunes and gave us TMI peeks into her sad, Cheez Whiz–filled life through the miracle of criminally hilarious videos. Renberg Theater and the Hudson Theater.
Clyt at Home: The Clytemnestra Project. Katharine Noon and Christopher DeWan’s post-postmod retelling of the Clytemnestra tragedy posits our Clyt (pronounced, ahem, “klite”) in a contemporary Gulf War setting (the production was staged before the Afghanistan thing), although she and the Furies (seen as a gossipy trio of Happy Hour sisters) inhabit a kind of prolonged ’60s fashion sensibility. While it suffered from some writerly excesses and uneven casting, the show rode home on the slender shoulders of Jacqueline Wright as the troubled queen. Theater of NOTE.
Orson’s Shadow. Austin Pendleton’s stage fantasy (conceived by Judith Auberjonois and based on some actual events) has the critic Kenneth Tynan trying to matchmake Laurence Olivier with Orson Welles to mount a production of Ionesco’s Rhinoceros. A kind of meta-drama within a comedy, Orson’s Shadow knowingly captured a doomed project both forged and broken by hot tempers and brittle egos, and featured a powerhouse performance by Robert Machray as Welles. Black Dahlia Theater.
Mercadet, the Napoleon of Finance. The noble classicalists of the Antaeus Company once more fetched a gem from obscurity by staging Honore de Balzac’s ripping send-up of bourgeois avarice in 19th-century Paris. Dakin Mathews nimbly played the title’s avuncular con man who has seemingly reached the end of his rope until he discovers one last swindle that will keep away his creditors and the courts — the marrying off of his daughter. Ivy Substation.
Fifth & Spring. The past year saw no play more honest, unsparing and yet warmly forgiving of the newest lost generation than Alyson Croft’s comedy-drama about an overweight young woman trying to handle an outlaw boyfriend and a mother addicted to gambling. Blue Sphere Alliance at the Lex.
The Circle. For revivals, it was hard to beat Warner Shook’s meticulous staging of Somerset Maugham’s farcical collision of generations and class attitudes that occurs on an English country estate one weekend. Paxton Whitehead led a superb cast on Ralph Funicello’s sumptuous set. South Coast Repertory.
Fully Committed. Written by Becky Mode and exuberantly performed by Mark Setlock, this look at the workings of a New York restaurant, as witnessed by its harried and oppressed reservations booker, was one of the year’s few truly wonderful imports. Coronet Theater.
Another American: Asking and Telling. Marc Wolfe’s one-man show, in which he assumed the identities and stories of military gays and straights whom he’d interviewed, was an entertaining if sobering lesson about the big divide created by the government’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policies. A needed antidote to the feel-good blather of The Laramie Project. Mark Taper Forum.
Boos, Hisses & Catcalls
Worst Musical Spectacle: Aida, the ankh-and-sandal epic with forgettable tunes by Elton John and Tim Rice (Ahmanson Theater). Most Egregious Abuse of Camp: Troggie Dearest, Christopher Reidy’s woefully unfunny and amateurishly staged fantasy about life with Joan Crawford (Gardner Stage). Most Annoying Bible Story: Terrence McNally’s gay passion play about the Messiah, Corpus Christi (Lillian Theater). Most Hideously Reverential Rockumentary: the sugar-glazed confection known as Selena: A Musical Celebration of Life, courtesy of Edward Gallardo and Fernando Rivas Doolittle Theater.