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 2012 Theater

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At the end of a year, I usually rebel against the artificial notion of compiling a 10-best list. It always strikes me as an exercise in comparing not just apples and oranges but also grapes and watermelons and tomatoes and artichokes — and, especially in 2012, the finer examples of kale.

I do like to remember a year’s highlights, however. And I especially appreciate the chance to acknowledge a few of those highlights that, for one reason or another, I didn’t write about earlier in the year.

So I usually try to come up with some way of organizing those highlights that reflects something other than alphabetical order or the ludicrous notion of pretending that a particular production was “number one” while its “runner-up” was merely “number two.”

Annie Parisse and Jeremy Shamos in “Clybourne Park.” Photo by Craig Schwartz.

Everyone who creates a year-end list of theatrical highlights should reveal how many productions he or she saw during the year. This isn’t for bragging purposes — or for pitying purposes, for those who feel that it’s a shame for one person to have to see a lot of bad theater alongside the good.

No, it’s simply that any list — in whatever format — wouldn’t mean much if it were written by someone who saw only 10 shows during the year (unfortunately, that’s the minimum number that some Ovation voters have to see).

The following comments are based on seeing 263 productions in Greater LA during 2012 (so far — I’m still expecting to see more this week). I’m not considering the relatively few productions I saw outside Greater LA.

This year, I’m organizing my thoughts in tiers based loosely on the sizes of theaters, starting with the biggest, which usually have access to a wider field of possible productions, as well as greater production resources:

THE BIG

Alan Mandell, James Cromwell and Barry McGovern in “Waiting for Godot.” Photo by Craig Schwartz.

Center Theatre Group’s master stroke this year was its richly rewarding concurrent pairing of Bruce Norris’ Clybourne Park at the Taper with a revival of Ebony Rep’s A Raisin in the Sun at the Douglas. The Douglas also offered the best Culture Clash-related show ever, American Night. While I earlier wrote a lot about those productions, let me now join (better late than never) the chorus of praise for Michael Arabian’s lively Waiting for Godot at the Taper. At the Ahmanson, land of imports, the best of ’em was certainly the revival of Follies.

Two of the area’s biggest theaters, South Coast Repertory and Pasadena Playhouse, collaborated on a first-class revival of August Wilson’s Jitney. It was a South Coast production, but Pasadena — which was faced with a canceled show at about the same time — had the good sense to drive this Jitney into LA County. South Coast’s production of Molly Smith Metzler’s Elemeno Pea served as a very funny response to the year of the 1%, the 99% and the 47%.

Sara Botsford, Jane Kaczmarek and Marylouise Burke in “Good People.” Photo by Michael Lamont.

For that matter, so did David Lindsay-Abaire’s Good People at the Geffen Playhouse. And there was no solo show in 2012 more touching than the Geffen’s hit The Pianist of Willesden Lane, starring Mona Golabek, adapted and directed by Hershey Felder.

In the arena of big musicals, The Book of Mormon rang the doorbell at the Pantages, offering its celebrated blend of good-natured tolerance and extraordinary profanity. Hilarity ensued. La Mirada’s revival of Miss Saigon packed an extra emotional punch for being the first Saigon revival to cast a Vietnamese American as Kim. Musical Theatre West’s 42nd Street was a more dynamic trip down memory lane than the Ahmanson’s Anything Goes.

Broad Stage began 2012 with a revival of David Cromer’s interpretation of Our Town, but it was adapted so elaborately and ingeniously to the Broad space that it seemed almost like an indigenous production about, yes, our town. The Getty Villa gave adapter Nick Salamone and director Jon Lawrence Rivera a lot of latitude in adapting the relatively obscure Helen to LA in 2012, and it paid off.

THE MIDDLE

Olivia Delgado, Alexis de la Rocha, Evelina Fernandez and Lucy Rodriguez in “Faith- Part I of A Mexican Trilogy.” Photo by Pablo Santiago.

At Los Angeles Theatre Center, the resident Latino Theater Company completed Evelina Fernandez’s Mexican Trilogy on a high note with Faith. But the best productions at LATC this year were in the spring, and they were presentations of other companies — Cornerstone Theater, which climbed to a new high in its post-Bill Rauch history with Lisa Loomer’s Café Vida, and Golden Thread Productions, which introduced Language Rooms, Yussef El-Guindi’s gripping comedy about two government interrogators, to LA.

The Colony entered perilous financial straits but turned out several sterling productions — a terrific revival of Old Wicked Songs and the local premieres of Evan Smith’s comedy about religious friction, The Savannah Disputation, and John Morogiello’s Blame It on Beckett. Because the latter comedy was set behind the scenes at a nonprofit theater, I quoted from it more than any other play this year.

Susan Angelo and Geoff Elliott in “Antony and Cleopatra.” Photo by Craig Schwartz.

A Noise Within used its new digs to maximum advantage in Antony and Cleopatra, Cymbeline, Shaw’s seldom-seen The Doctor’s Dilemma and for that matter, the current A Christmas Carol. Theatricum Botanicum brought Measure for Measure to a California setting and enhanced The Women of Lockerbie with its alfresco venue.

The Troubies, LA’s most consistently entertaining (albeit somewhat formulaic) theater company, continued its winning ways at the Falcon with Two Gentlemen of Chicago and Rudolph the Red-Nosed ReinDoors. But the non-Troubie programming at the Falcon was better this year than usual, highlighted by Damian Lanigan’s Dissonance and Jordi Galcerán Ferrer’s The Grönholm Method. The Rubicon’s and Cheri Steinkellner’s rousing new musical about song pluggers, Hello! My Baby, deserves more productions. It was heartening to see Shakespeare Festival/LA return to summertime production with a shiny As You Like It, in the VA’s Japanese Garden.

Among REDCAT’s imports this year, my favorite wasn’t the clever but enervating Gatz, which recently attracted so much attention, but instead Mariano Pensotti’s El Pasado es un Animal Grotesco, an Argentine comedy that used a constantly revolving stage to tell several complex human stories in less than half the time devoted to Gatz.

THE SMALL

Terry Davis in “Sarah’s War.” Photo by John P. Flynn.

The most populated tier of LA theater was rife with the good as well as the bad this year.

One of my favorite new plays was Valerie Dillman’s Sarah’s War, produced by Freedom Theatre West at the Hudson. It covered the human beings involved in the Israeli/Palestinian/American crucible in a much more dimensional way than I’ve seen on any other stage.

Rogue Machine had another stellar year with new plays — I liked Henry Murray’s Three Views of the Same Object, Samuel Hunter’s A Bright New Boise and Rob Mersola’s current Dirty Filthy Love Story. Carrie Barrett’s Focus Group Play was a sharply focused comedy from Katselas Theatre at the Skylight. Vanessa Claire Stewart’s Stoneface at Sacred Fools was a tour de force on several levels. Phinneas Kiyomura’s Figure 8 at Theatre of NOTE, Michael Elyanow’s The Children at Boston Court and Patricia Scanlon’s Death of a Salesgirl at Bootleg intrigued. Steve Yockey’s Very Still and Hard to See was the best Halloween play of the year, although the Production Company staged it during the summer.

Chance Theater’s production of Brian Nelson’s Overlooked was a funny look at the intersection between art, fame and homelessness, but it was seriously overlooked — its next stop should be a theater in LA County. City Garage also played with notions of art and fame and took a few cheeky but indirect shots at MOCA in its revised version of Neil Labute’s Filthy Talk for Troubled Times.

Daniel Durant, Eddie Buck, Troy Kotsur, Ipek D. Mehlum and Maleni Chaitoo in “Cyrano.” Photo by Ed Krieger.

The Fountain scored with Stephen Sachs’contemporary Cyrano and with Tarell Alvin McCraney’s In the Red and Brown Water, although the ending of the latter isn’t entirely convincing. Likewise, the second act of The Color Purple always strikes me as a bit long-winded and slightly anticlimactic, but Celebration’s much-touted production of the musical was superb. So were these creatively re-staged small revivals of big musicals: Chance’s West Side Story, Actors Co-op’s The World Goes ‘Round, Doma’s Avenue Q, Over the Moon’s Spring Awakening.

The Boston Court/Furious Theatre co-production of Oded Gross’ Gogol adaptation, The Government Inspector, wasn’t billed as a musical comedy, but it was a very sprightly quasi-musical-comedy. Among classics in the small theaters, I liked Jessica Kubzansky’s creative touches in the Antaeus Company’s Macbeth and its proximity to Zombie Joe’s very different Blood of Macbeth, just down the block. Jack Stehlin’s modern-dress Julius Caesar for New American Theatre also demonstrated that a tiny space can handle a very big play.

Matt Hurley and Mary Guilliams in “Red Barn.” Photo by David Reynolds.

Independent Shakespeare’s studio productions of Hamlet and the original musical, Red Barn, added another venue to the creative ferment already taking place on a quiet street in Atwater, where the beachhead was the still-newish Atwater Village Theatre, home of Ensemble Studio Theatre/LA and Circle X.

Robey Theatre unearthed Philip Yordan’s fascinating Anna Lucasta at LATC. Sierra Madre Playhouse did a wonderful take on Alan Ayckbourn’s Woman in Mind. And speaking of women in mind, the better Theresa Rebeck plays weren’t produced by Center Theatre Group, where she is a favorite playwright, but rather by the Road (The Water’s Edge) and Wasatch Theatrical Ventures (Our House).

AT THE BROAD YESTERDAY: I finally took in one of the Flash theater events yesterday — and not a moment too soon, because it was the 20th and final production in the series created by Jon Lawrence Rivera that did brief “flash mob”-style performances in public spaces.

While I enjoyed the ritualistic movement within Winter, by Henry Ong, it didn’t feel as unexpected as some of the earlier examples surely did. It was supposed to be staged outside Broad Stage as people gathered for the matinee of Cymbeline, but because of the damp weather it was moved into the lobby. Once you’re inside a lobby, however, you’re already so close to a stage that a performance is hardly as surprising as it would be in a public space that isn’t inside a theater building.

Ben Steinfeld, Emily Young and Paul L. Coffey in Fiasco Theater’s  “Cymbeline.” Photo by Ari Mintz.

Still, Winter projected a lean gravitas that seemed surprisingly appropriate for the weekend in which much of the nation was still absorbing the shock of the Connecticut school shootings.

I then stayed at the Broad to see the matinee performance of the New York-based Fiasco Theater’s staging of Cymbeline. It didn’t project the same gravitas, but its playfulness was quite irresistible. A cast of only six, including the two directors, presented Shakespeare’s wild tale with only a few inexpensive, modular set pieces. The six also served as the musicians who added a rich musical texture, mostly from the rear of the stage, with a score that included both European choral and American country singing.

Most of the actors played at least two roles, which might have been confusing for theatergoers who are unfamiliar with Cymbeline, but my understanding of the complicated plot was surely bolstered by the fact that I had seen Bart DeLorenzo’s larger-cast staging for A Noise Within less than three months ago.

Cymbeline is seldom staged — and I don’t know if I’ll ever have the chance again to see two productions in such close proximity. But it’s a lot of fun. With one more weekend to go at the Broad, the Fiasco production is one of the few shows at a larger venue this week that isn’t holiday-specific, so it might be worth your time — but if you didn’t see A Noise Within’s version, you might want to consult a synopsis before you enter the theater.

Cymbeline, Broad Stage, 1310 11th St., Santa Monica. Tue-Sat 7:30 pm, Sat 2 pm. Closes Sat. www.thebroadstage.com. 310-434-3200.