20 Highlights in 2009

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LA STAGE WATCH is a series of articles by staff writer/blogger Don Shirley.

I enjoy reading year-end roundups more than I enjoy writing them. Of the 240 shows I’ve seen so far this year, it’s difficult to narrow the list to a specific number of highlights. The winnowing process often feels like an arbitrary exercise in comparing theatrical apples to theatrical oranges.

In the interest of readability, however, here are 16 plays, one festival of new plays and three companies’ seasons – so I guess it adds up to 20? They’re in largely alphabetical order, although I’ve grouped a few shows by something similar that they share:

Battle Hymn, Circle X Theatre at Inside the Ford. Jim Leonard’s picaresque tale about a woman who remains pregnant through 150 years of American history, proved to be an ideal way to celebrate the inauguration of Barack Obama.

Chekhov, freshly minted: Three Sisters in an atmospheric hall in Hollywood from Chalk Rep, and The Cherry Orchard set in 1970s Virginia, at the Theatricum Botanicum.

Coming Home. Fountain Theatre. Athol Fugard visits post-apartheid and AIDS-ravaged South Africa via characters he first introduced in his Valley Song, in an impeccable staging by Stephen Sachs.

Hamlet, Shut Up, Sacred Fools Theater. Jonas Oppenheim turns the story into uproarious comedy, using plenty of sound but no words — well, there’s one three-word sentence, but even it wasn’t written by Shakespeare.

Hamlet, Theatre 150, Ojai. Jessica Kubzansky’s intimate staging, with Leo Marks as the prince, moved me to tears of sadness, in stark contrast to Hamlet Shut Up (above), which moved me to tears of laughter.

The Happy Ones, South Coast Repertory, Costa Mesa. OC-based South Coast was long overdue in introducing a new play that’s actually set in Orange County (circa 1975) — Julie Marie Myatt’s touching yet gently funny tale about a shattered widower’s relationship with the Vietnamese immigrant who accidentally killed his family.

Hunter Gatherers, Furious Theatre at Pasadena Playhouse’s Carrie Hamilton Theater. Peter Sinn Nachtrieb’s ultra-dark comedy is about two couples whose mutual anniversary dinner party turns savage (also see Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, below). This first Furious production on an Equity contract is good news for the LA theater scene.

Louis & Keely Live From the Sahara, the expanded Geffen Playhouse version, which I liked even more than I liked the original, Sacred Fools/Matrix model. Now a third edition is about to open at El Portal. But beyond the merits of the several versions was the importance of the fact that the Geffen provided such a great home and so much wider exposure to a production born in the smaller theater scene.

Pericles Redux, Kirk Douglas Theatre. Shakespeare’s strange swashbuckler received a beautifully danced Grotowski-like treatment — except that it was a lot funnier than Grotowski — on a bare stage from director John Farmanesh-Bocca and the Not Man Apart ensemble.

The Threepenny Opera, International City Theatre, Long Beach. Jules Aaron’s staging, using the harsh Michael Feingold translation, was the best version of the Brecht/Weill classic that I’ve seen in the Southland.

Three tiger plays (no, these aren’t about a certain golfer):

Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, Center Theatre Group, Kirk Douglas Theatre. Rajiv Joseph tells the story of an anthropomorphic tiger (was it just a coincidence that the wonderful actor in this role was named Kevin Tighe)? and two U.S. soldiers in Iraq, plus an Iraqi topiary artist for Saddam’s household who’s now a translator for the U.S. occupiers. This returns in April in a second CTG production at the Mark Taper Forum.

Land of the Tigers, Burglars of Hamm, first at Sacred Fools Theatre and then at the Lost Studio. Act 1 is a supposedly earnest, over-the-top allegory in which the actors play anthropomorphic tigers threatened by global cooling, and Act 2 is a mordantly funny skewering of the process that created the Act 1 play, within an L.A. acting class.

The Rehearsal: Count Tiger, a French aristocrat, falls in love, creating chaos within his jaded social circle in Jean Anouilh’s dark comedy of manners — one of the least familiar plays A Noise Within has ever tackled and therefore one of the more revelatory.

The Voysey Inheritance. In a remarkably topical programming move, Theatre 40 produced David Mamet’s adaptation of a 1905 Harley Granville-Barker play about a British family that practiced financial skulduggery in a style very similar to that of Bernie Madoff.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Rubicon Theatre, Ventura. Jenny Sullivan’s staging, with Joe Spano and Karyl Lynn Burns, was the best version of the Albee classic that I’ve seen in the Southland.

Open Fist Theatre’s First Look Festival of Plays featured very short runs. But the two bills that I saw were exceptional: Karen Hartman’s Goliath, an even-handed but open-hearted story set among the Israeli settlements on the West Bank, and the double bill of two biting Neil LaBute one-acts: The New Testament and Helter Skelter.

And here are nods to three theater companies for their seasons:

International City Theatre in Long Beach seems to have a primarily white, aging audience at most of the performances I’ve attended. I would not have expected a season that consisted of a blistering The Threepenny Opera (above); David Ives’ surprisingly riotous adaptation of Mark Twain’s Is He Dead?; Carol Lynn Pearson’s Facing East, about a Mormon couple confronting the suicide of their excommunicated gay son and his surviving lover; Eric Coble’s farce Bright Ideas, about young parents who are feloniously desperate to get their kid to the top of pre-school culture; and Jason Robert Brown’s bookless cycle of Songs For a New World.

The Production Company, with a Valley Village venue that’s one of the tiniest in town, delivered superb postage-stamp revivals of Twilight of the Golds, Equus and Sweeney Todd.

The West Coast Ensemble scored with The Graduate, Big and Three Tall Women  all of which had previous L.A. stagings that seemed overblown, and all of which were much improved by the intimacy of the WCE productions. Anita Bryant Died For Your Sins was another triumph from the company this year.

Don Shirley

Don Shirley

Don Shirley writes about theater for LA Observed. He is the former longtime theater writer for the Los Angeles Times, LA Stage Times and other publications.