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.

Highlights of 2011 in LA Theater

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In LA STAGE Watch, I usually try to connect the dots between the individual shows I’ve seen. So, for the second year in a row, I’ve decided to survey the best of the previous year’s LA theatrical output in 10 categories, instead of somewhat arbitrarily picking 10 or even 20 best shows.

I get to recall a few more of my favorites that way. But I’ve restricted myself to mentioning no more than 10 per cent of the 264 shows I saw this year (OK — it’s actually 27 shows) in LA, Orange and Ventura counties.

LA PLAYWRIGHTS OR LA SUBJECTS: Theater is perhaps the most local of the arts — it takes place right here, right now. So I look for good plays that are set in LA and/or written by LA playwrights — especially because our city’s flagship theater company, Center Theatre Group (AKA the self-proclaimed “LA’s Theatre Company”) — still indicates little interest in this search. This year’s crop of such plays was strong and healthy, so I’ve devoted more space to this category than any other. Among my favorites, in alphabetical order:


Brook Masters and Anne Gee Byrd in “Breadcrumbs”

Breadcrumbs LA writer Jennifer Haley and director Jessica Kubzansky found ways of translating the stories of a woman falling into dementia, and her young caregiver, into pitch-perfect theatrical metaphors at Ojai’s Theater 150, which since then has unfortunately given up the ghost as an Equity contract theater.

A Christmas Westside Story This latest concoction of Matt Walker and his Troubadour Theater mixes music and dance from West Side Story, the plot from the movie A Christmas Story, and the Troubies’ customary comments on the current scene into an intoxicating laughfest, still playing at the Falcon.


Joe Mahon and Michael Pappas in “Gospel According to First Squad”

Gospel According to First Squad — There were no LA subjects in Tom Burmester’s powerful analysis of a group of American soldiers in Afghanistan, but the final installment in Los Angeles Theatre Ensemble’s powerful War Cycle was the culmination of a trilogy that ranks as one of the most impressive accomplishments to arise out of LA’s sub-100-seat scene.

House of the Rising Son — More of Tom Jacobson’s play is set in New Orleans than in LA, but LA assumes an imposing and surprisingly hopeful significance even in the New Orleans sections of this delicately and deeply layered drama, which Michael Michetti directed for Ensemble Studio Theatre/LA.


Paul Haitkin, Sandra Purpuro  in “The Sonneteer”

The Sonneteer — LA writer Nick Salamone’s best play yet focuses on an East Coast family in turmoil. Jon Lawrence Rivera’s staging at the LA Gay & Lesbian Center managed to make their complicated relationships over several decades spring to poetic as well as dramatic life.

The Temperamentals — Jon Marans delivered an evocative slice of LA history in his lively drama about the beginnings of the pioneer gay rights group, the Mattachine Society. Michael Matthews staged it for Blank Theatre.

Up — Bridget Carpenter’s depiction of the aftermath of an LA dreamer’s famous stunt, staged by Trevor Biship at the Chance Theater, eloquently evoked the sadness beneath the surface of the LA and the American dreams.


David Huynh, Christine Corpuz and Tim Chiou in “Year Zero”

Year Zero — Michael Golamco’s penetrating examination of two Cambodian American siblings at a crossroads, entering into young adulthood after the death of their mother, is set in Long Beach, but it had never been produced in Southern California until David Rose’s impassioned rendition at the Colony Theatre in Burbank. Too bad it wasn’t produced in Long Beach too, where more people from the large Cambodian community might have been able to see it.


The most intriguing offerings from Center Theatre Group this year were also among the company’s smallest shows, both of them at the Kirk Douglas Theatre. Solo shows just don’t get any better than Charlayne’s Woodard’s The Night Watcher, and because it’s an autobiographical dramatization of LA resident Charlayne’s Woodard’s adult relationships with other people’s children, it had the added benefit of introducing some LA content into CTG’s offerings this year.

Earlier, England’s Tim Crouch brought his unorthodox storytelling method to a small audience who sat onstage, with Crouch and three other actors sitting among us, in The Author. The actors gradually told us more and more details of a behind-the-scenes theatrical saga that raised hard questions about the nature of not only the theatrical process but also the ways stories are told in other media as well.



Nightmare scene in “Twist”

Although the first full year after the Pasadena Playhouse’s 2010 bankruptcy was hardly a nonstop hit parade, I was impressed by the way the new musical Twist altered the original Oliver Twist in inventive ways for an American 1920s multicultural setting. The creative team included William F. Brown and Tina Tippit (book), Tena Clark (lyrics and music) and Gary Prim (music), with direction and choreography by Debbie Allen.

Later, Sheldon Epps finally returned to directing, achieving remarkable results in a revival of Blues for an Alabama Sky, Pearl Cleage’s ode to the free-living spirits of the Harlem Renaissance. It’s set in 1930 — only a few years after the time frame of Twist. Those years were also the playhouse’s first heyday. Let’s hope the playhouse can solidify its grasp of the present day, too, with something just as successful.


Deborah Strang in “The Chairs” at A Noise Within; Photo by Craig Schwartz

Yes, although the biggest news from LA’s major classical company was its move to larger quarters in Pasadena after raising a mind-boggling amount of money during a recession, the company’s final round of programming in its previous Glendale home was its best onstage work of the year — and perhaps the best overall group of three concurrent rep productions in the company’s history. It consisted of Michael Michetti’s vaudeville-inspired Comedy of Errors, Dámaso Rodriguez’s crystalline approach to Williams’ Eccentricities of a Nightingale and Julia Rodriguez-Elliott’s ingenious staging of Ionesco’s The Chairs — a particularly resonant way to close the company’s Glendale history.


Esperanza America Ibarra, Dyana Ortelli, Keith McDonald, Dru Davis and Olivia Delgado in “Hope”; Photo by Hector Cruz Sandoval

It was back to the late ’50 in Ebony Rep’s shattering revival of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, staged by Phylicia Rashad at the Nate Holden. CTG had the good sense to pick it up for a extended run next month at the Kirk Douglas; let’s hope it retains all of its impact in the new venue.

Latino Theater Company went back to the early ’60s in Hope, Evelina Fernandez’s autobiographical jukebox musical incorporating hits from the era into a story about a Chicano family with its own deferred dreams. It’s the first produced part of a trilogy, so I’m hoping to see this one again, too.


The fall brought two stellar productions focusing on aspects of World War II. Antaeus Company’s Barry Creyton interpolated Noel Coward’s songs into an otherwise streamlined version of Coward’s what-if play Peace in Our Time, about how British civilians might have reacted if Hitler’s forces had taken over England early in the war. Casey Stengl directed two different sets of actors. Sub-100-seat classical theater doesn’t get any more ambitious or any more successful than this.

Norbert Weisser and Bruce Katzman in “Way to Heaven”; Photo by Enci

At the Odyssey, Ron Sossi staged Spanish playwright Juan Mayorga’s The Way to Heaven, which tells the fascinating story of a Nazi camp commandant’s feverish effort to enlist the Jewish prisoners in an elaborate campaign to deceive a Red Cross inspector about camp conditions. Told in a fractured timeline, the play made us think not only about the Nazis, but also about how most actors — and most people — sometimes have to put on shows for dubious ends.


Brendan Farrell and Kate Huffman in “100 Saints You Should Know”

The big festival month yielded more concentrated theatrical activity than any other single month within my memory. Radar L.A. brought a lot of noteworthy productions to our attention, bud I’d like to single out Moving Arts’ site-specific Car Plays — in part because it’s so reflective of LA culture but also because you have another chance to see it fairly soon, with two weekends of performances in January in the plaza of the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, followed by performances of a San Diego edition in La Jolla in late February and early March.

The Hollywood Fringe Festival generally wasn’t as interesting, but I’ll gladly single out a festival show that actually opened prior to the festival — Lindsay Allbaugh’s staging of Kate Fodor’s moving 100 Saints You Should Know, for Elephant Theatre. The Elephant, by the way, had a great hit later in the year with Kristina Poe’s raucously funny Love Sick.


Clifford Morts and Kelly Lester in “The Adding Machine”

From the distant Anaheim Hills, courtesy of Chance Theater, came the local premiere of  Jerry Springer: the Opera, with its shocking profanities juxtaposed with exquisite singing in this surreal look at Springer fever (book and lyrics by Stewart Lee and Richard Thomas, directed by Trevor Biship).

And earlier in the year, the Odyssey offered the local premiere of The Adding Machine: The Musical, which demonstrated why Elmer Rice’s play must have been as eyebrow-raising in its time as Jerry Springer: The Opera was eight decades later, with a score by Joshua Schmidt and a libretto by Schmidt with Jason Loewith, staged by Ron Sossi.


Robin Larsen directed two plays in a row about the, er, romantic relationships of pharmaceutical workers. How odd is that? But both Keith Huff’s Pursued by Happiness, at the Road, and David Harrower’s Blackbird, at Rogue Machine were compulsively watchable, with somewhat different mixes of light and dark tones.


Rooftops from “Iris”; Photo by Mark Dulong © Cirque du Soleil

It would be hard to ignore Cirque du Soleil’s spectacular only-in-LA production in the heart of Hollywood, or Danny Elfman’s amazing score for it — but why should anyone want to? I continue to hope that if Iris stays at the Kodak for the planned decade, it might ultimately help the less well endowed LA theatrical community as much as its competitive pull and high-priced tickets might temporarily hurt it.

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