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 2013 Theater

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This is a Top 10…percent article.

As I’ve written more than once, I see no reason to arbitrarily limit year-end lists to 10. But in my year-end highlights article last year, I went too far in the other direction, mentioning too many productions, which diluted the impact of each particular nod.

So this year I’m returning to the position I took in 2011 — I won’t list more than 10 percent of the 263 productions that I saw in the LA area during the past year.

This year I’m listing most of the shows in alphabetical order ( but three of the entries are about more than one production each). If you want to read more about what I thought, follow the links to earlier columns (except for the cases of a few shows that I didn’t write about earlier).

Absolutely Filthy — Brendan Hunt’s hilarious and poignant Peanuts sequel was the liveliest home-grown production to emerge from the smaller-theater scene in 2013. I wrote about it twice — when it was at Sacred Fools Theater, where it originated, and then when it played a different venue as part of the Hollywood Fringe Festival. It was my favorite of the shows I saw in the Fringe. I might be able to see it again next year. South Coast Repertory has invited Jeremy Aldridge’s staging to its Studio SCR series. That’s encouraging, but a weekend in SCR’s smallest space should not be this show’s final destination. It deserves to move to the midsize or even large leagues (but no — not as large as the Ahmanson or the Pantages).

Kalean Ung and Jeremy Shranko in "Alcestis" at Boston Court. Photo by Ed Krieger.
Kalean Ung and Jeremy Shranko in “Alcestis” at Boston Court. Photo by Ed Krieger.

Alcestis — Nancy Keystone and her Critical Mass Performance Group created the year’s best adaptation of Greek drama, translating Euripides’ Alcestis into contemporary American terms — not only in the words but also in the spaces between the words, using imaginative movement and design. Although the material is sharply focused on meditations about death, Keystone managed to make it funny as well as entrancing, in a collaboration with Boston Court.

El Año en que Nací (The Year I Was Born) — This was my favorite show in this year’s Radar L.A. festival. Argentinian director Lola Arias gathered a group of young adult Chileans who were born during the Pinochet dictatorship to recall and discuss their experiences with the country’s political scene during and after that turbulent era, accompanied by rock music and informal but dynamic choreography. It was a nuanced look at how a society’s varied strands might try to find reconciliation in the wake of such events — in Spanish with English supertitles, at LATC.

Bronzeville — Robey Theatre Company brought back Tim Toyama and Aaron Woolfolk’s play, set in LA’s Little Tokyo as it became Bronzeville during World War II — when African-Americans moved in to fill the real estate vacancies caused by the internment of Japanese-Americans in wartime camps. The company had first produced it in 2009, when I missed it because I was out of town during most of its run. So for me Ben Guillory’s revival at LATC this year was a revelation – and the best new play specifically set in LA that I saw in 2013. Along with Absolutely Filthy, it’s now another prime candidate for a move up to a larger space. It’s time that producers at midsize and large theaters used the 99-seat scene more often for that purpose.

Chinglish — David Henry Hwang’s tale of an American trying to do business in China is a remarkably stimulating comedy about cultural clashes in commerce, language and romance. Leigh Silverman directed it for South Coast Repertory, with superb supertitles for the Chinese dialogue, in a production that then traveled to Hong Kong (where I’m guessing that the supertitles were of the English dialogue). South Coast offered several fascinating local or world premieres during 2013, but this was my favorite.

Tyler Milliron and Ben D. Goldberg in "Falling for Make Believe." Photo by Michael Lamont.
Tyler Milliron and Ben D. Goldberg in “Falling for Make Believe.” Photo by Michael Lamont.

Falling For Make Believe — Musicals that piggyback on existing scores by the greats don’t get much better than this glimpse into the closeted life of Lorenz Hart and his very platonic and sometimes stormy relationship with his composing partner Richard Rodgers. Although Mark Saltzman’s book has its own “make believe,” it hews much closer to the truth than previous fictional depictions of Hart. In its premiere at the Colony, directed by Jim Fall, it already had been streamlined to a fast-paced length that many shows reach only in their second or third productions. So where and when is this show’s second production? I want to see it again.

Falling and On the Spectrum — These two productions introduced us to young autistic men, from very different perspectives. Deanna Jent’s Falling, produced by Rogue Machine, is a harrowing examination of a young man on an extreme edge of the autism spectrum. Ken LaZebnik’s On the Spectrum, produced by Fountain Theatre, is a more hopeful look at another young man who is more capable of moving away from dependency. I saw both plays but wrote about neither of them. If they had been produced at around the same time, I probably would have written about both of them, for each provides a viewpoint that isn’t nearly as apparent in the other, and the sum of the two is greater than its individual parts. I suppose the idea of reviving both of them simultaneously, with organized marketing cooperation between the two companies, is too much to hope for.

The Good Negro — Tracey Scott Wilson wrote a fictional narrative that seems to let us eavesdrop behind the scenes of the early civil rights movement in Alabama — and also behind the corresponding curtains of the FBI agents who were literally eavesdropping on the civil rights leaders. The characters are hardly identical plaster saints, but the title is not entirely ironic either. Michael Phillip Edwards double cast his rendition, for Upward Bound Productions at the Hudson Theatre. I saw only one of the two sets of actors, but I’d love to see another group of actors tackle this play, preferably at a midsize or larger theater.

Lorenzo Pisoni in “Humor Abuse" at the Mark Taper Forum. Photo by Craig Schwartz.
Lorenzo Pisoni in “Humor Abuse” at the Mark Taper Forum. Photo by Craig Schwartz.

Humor Abuse — Solo shows are hardly my favorite theatrical format, but Lorenzo Pisoni’s, at the Mark Taper Forum, delighted even us solo show curmudgeons. It helps that his performance is not only a one-man circus act but also an intricate autobiographical meditation on the tangled connections between a circus-obsessed father and his son.  Erica Schmidt directed.

In the Next Room, or the vibrator play — Sarah Ruhl’s masterpiece (at least of those of her plays I’ve seen so far — I’m now looking forward to Passion Play at the Odyssey) finally was introduced to LA County not in one of our larger theaters but in August Viverito’s staging for the Production Company at the tiny Secret Rose Theatre in NoHo. Go figure. Ruhl takes us back to the 19th century home office of a male doctor who’s using vibrators to cure female “hysteria”. Meanwhile, his wife — who’s chafing over having to hire a wet nurse for her newborn — hires a black woman whose own baby died.

The three Laramie Projects – Last spring Chance Theater, in Anaheim, staged The Laramie Project and The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later in repertorya powerful production that used a rather conventional stage configuration, by Chance standards. Later in 2013, the Gay and Lesbian Center staged the LA premiere of Ten Years Later in a more intimate and immersive arena-style configuration.  The cumulative effect of these three doses of the story of Matthew Shepard and the aftermath of his murder reinforced the regard that I hold for the Tectonic Theatre Project’s work(s) — one of the most important pieces of documentary-style theater that America has produced.

Macbeth — Independent Shakespeare, LA’s free outdoor Shakespeare company, is attracting weekend crowds that are sometimes too big for intimate nuances to be appreciated. But David Melville’s staging of the Scottish play surmounted this problem in many creative ways, not the least of which was one of the most brutal final fights ever. Luis Galindo and Melissa Chalsma were galvanizing as the usurping couple. This highlight of my Shakespearean experiences in 2013 received a shocking lack of critical attention, despite the fact that ISC’s populist productions in Griffith Park should automatically be considered as a staple of any critic’s annual summertime plans.

Melancholia — Latino Theater Company revived its piercing, fractured account of an Iraq War veteran returning to a bleak future in LA. This time the company used an LATC space — usually an exhibition room — where I had never seen a play. Jose Luis Valenzuela’s production remained eerily effective — until, at the performance I saw, the building’s fire alarm went off accidentally, creating brief confusion, uprooting everyone from the action, spoiling the momentum. Maybe now that the alarm system is presumably working, we’ll get another chance to see it there?

Hilary Ward, Sofie Calderon, Cate Scott Campbell, Ursaline Bryant and Amy Ellenberger in "Mommune." Photo by Dave Brewer.
Hilary Ward, Sofie Calderon, Cate Scott Campbell, Ursaline Bryant and Amy Ellenberger in “Mommune.” Photo by Dave Brewer.

Mommune – In a year when I saw site-specific productions in many unusual spaces — among them, the grand Union Station for the opera Invisible Cities — perhaps none of the spaces was less likely than Pint Size Kids, a Sherman Oaks childcare center. But that’s where Chalk Repertory placed Dorothy Fortenberry’s intriguing evocation of a future in which mothers who make mistakes are sentenced to mandatory instruction in state-approved parenting methods. They have to earn the right to return to their families by learning their lessons so well that they can pass muster as teachers for expecting breeders. What a strange, amusing, and provocative trip!

The Nether – Speaking of strange, amusing and provocative trips into the future (see Mommune, above), Jennifer Haley’s much-awarded The Nether arrived at Center Theatre Group’s Kirk Douglas Theatre.  Haley and a remarkable cast and design team led by director Neel Keller brought us into an all-encompassing virtual reality where potential child molesters try to explore their proclivities inside their cyber-universes, even as real-world detectives pursue them. Gulp.

Our Class — Son of Semele needed a larger stage for Tadeusz Slobodzianek’s Our Class than the company’s usual 36-seat home, so it moved to Atwater Village Theatre, where there was room to surround an arena with a single row of 50 seats. Every spectator got a front-row vantage point on the story-theater depiction of a novelistic narrative that followed 10 Jews and 10 Catholics over the course of 20th-century history into the 21st. It was a sometimes amusing, more often horrifying journey, not for the faint of heart.

ParadeOn the same weekend when I saw Our Class confronting European anti-semitism (see above), I also saw 3-D Theatricals examining a virulent American outbreak of the same prejudice in T.J. Dawson’s much-awarded revival of the Jason Robert Brown/Alfred Uhry musical, about the lynching of Leo Frank nearly a century ago. This production was superb in every detail and catapulted 3-D into the LA area big leagues — which was reinforced later in the year with a Funny Girl that featured a brilliant performance by Nicole Parker.

Paige Lindsey White and John Sloan in "R II" at Boston Court. Photo by Ed Krieger.
Paige Lindsey White and John Sloan in “R II” at Boston Court. Photo by Ed Krieger.

Pericles and R II – Pasadena was the place for contrasting Shakespeare productions last fall. A Noise Within opened its season with a gorgeous, action-packed, wide-angle, 18-actor Pericles directed by Julia Rodriguez-Elliott, while Boston Court offered R II, a reshuffled, keenly focused, three-actor adaptation of Richard II from director Jessica Kubzansky. I had a great time at each of them, and I especially praise the performance of Antaeus Company co-artistic director John Sloan in R II.

The Scottsboro BoysParade (above) wasn’t the only musical that examined an ugly incident in American history. At the Ahmanson Theatre, Center Theatre Group offered Kander’s and Ebb’s The Scottsboro Boys. It uses the normally racist framework of a minstrel show to subvert racism, in its story about the flimsy but long-lasting case against a group of black young men during the ‘30s. As on Broadway, it was directed by Susan Stroman and featured Joshua Henry. Funny and moving in equal measure, it was unforgettable.

Spring Awakening — I’ve now seen quite a few productions of this landmark musical mashup of a 19th-century story with 21st-century music, but Brian Kite’s version of the Sheik/ Sater/Wedekind show at La Mirada Theatre offered something different — no hand mics, and the entire audience on the stage instead of just a few spectators, as the normal capacity of La Mirada fell from 1,251 to 199. Voila – a new midsize theater with no capital expenditures, and a wonderful experience in this new space.

Sunset Boulevard — Probably the best LA-set musical finally received a second production in LA, which had hosted the American premiere two decades ago and a few of its subsequent tours, but never a home-grown production until Musical Theatre West finally did it this year. Larry Raben’s revival featured a sizzling Valerie Perri as “the greatest star”-turned-has-been, and I was swept up in its indestructible story and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s music from beginning to end.

Yes, Prime Minister — Jonathan Lynn and Antony Jay wrote a farce about British politicians, but it translated very well for at least this American in Lynn’s US premiere at Geffen Playhouse. It touched on a number of plot turns and issues that resonated with similar recent moments and crises in American politics and policy, and a gifted and seasoned cast made it much funnier than recent American attempts to do this sort of thing (such as David Mamet’s November).


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