Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Best of '06 - Theater Edition

January 14, 2007

Because I favor music events and I love lists, I think its only fair to produce a second 2006 Top Ten list for non-opera theater events. Not that these performances were music-free. In fact at least three are musicals. Out of 81 events the following were my favorites:

Cast of Spring Awakening
Photo: Doug Hamilton 2006
1. Spring Awakening. Sater and Sheik. Eugene O’Neil Theater, New York. Believe the hype. This show is simply that good and it single-handedly revives the career of Duncan Sheik, an excellent songwriter, too long ignored in the pop world. A masterful recasting of a 19th century play in a way that injects it with modern relevance without having to change the plot line substantially. A minimal staging that is immediate and viscerally felt.

Matt McGrath in The Black Rider
Photo: Brinkhoff/Mögenburg Hamburg 2006
2. The Black Rider. Burroughs, Waits, and Wilson. Ahmanson Theater, Los Angeles. A visually arresting masterpiece that is both funny and poignant. Los Angeles seemed to miss the point that audiences in San Francisco lined-up around the block for less than a year ago which may say more about Center Theater Groups planning and marketing skills than anything else. The audiences had a very tough time with this avant-garde staging from Wilson despite his recent successes at LA Opera. Too bad for them.

3. Christine Ebersole in Grey Gardens and Cherry Jones in Doubt. Two master classes in how an incandescent performance can take a work and transform it from something good and interesting into something magnificent. Ebersole takes a flimsy plotted musical and makes it a fully functional tour de force. On her national tour of Stanley’s play, Cherry Jones filled the theaters with an incredibly intense performance that made the work much more than the sum of its parts.

Roger Guenvuer Smith
Photo: Variety 2006
4. The Watts Towers Project. Roger Guenvuer Smith. Kirk Douglas Theater, Los Angeles. The much talked about demise of CTG's development programs for underrepresented groups in theater under its new director, Michael Ritchie, did had one upshot – it brought this fantastic solo piece from Smith to life. A solo meditation on growing up in LA in the shadow of the Watts Towers and its legacy contained universal moments that all Angelenos could relate to. The meditative free-floating performance art nature of the work contained many moments of sheer rapture.

5. Joe Turner’s Come and Gone at The Fountain Theater, Fences at the Odyssey Theater, and Jitney at the Lillian Theater. All in Los Angeles. August Wilson. Wilson left several masterpieces of American theater and LA participated fully in the celebration of that gift this year with magnificent local productions in several venues – all with uniformly excellent casts.

Judi Dench
Photo: Catherine Ashmore 2006
6. Hay Fever. Noel Coward. Haymarket Theater in London. Dame Judi Dench shined in this commanding comic performance over the summer. She delivers Coward’s lines like they were written just for her. I have seen Dench on movie screens many times, but seeing her in a live performance made it easy to understand why she is so loved as an actor.

Neil Patrick Harris as Chris Keller, Laurie Metcalf as Kate Keller,
and Len Cariou as Joe Keller
Photo: Michael Lamont 2006
7. All My Sons. Arthur Miller. Geffen Playhouse. After a rocky season, the Geffen produced a brilliant version of this classic with Len Cariou and Laurie Metcalf. Metcalf was piercing, and the opening image of her standing alone onstage outside of her home lit only by the periodic lightning of a raging storm staring at a downed tree in the wind may be the single strongest LA stage image from the whole year.

Kenneth Alan Williams, Amy Farrington, Thomas Vincent Kelly and Jen Dede
Photo: Variety 2006
8. Mr. Kolpert. David Gieselmann. Odyssey Theater, Los Angeles. A skewed German version of Hitchcock’s Rope without pity. Here the body in the trunk is played for uncomfortable laughs and nobody on stage or in the audience is left off the hook. Daring and fun.

9. Wrestling Dostoyevsky. Betontanc. REDCAT, Los Angeles. The REDCAT continues to produce some of the most interesting theater events around, and this dance adaptation of Crime and Punishment from the Slavic troupe challenged boundaries and delivered on the promise of the novel while having its way with the narrative.

Nikkole Salter and Danai Gurira Photo: James Leynse 2006
10. In the Continuum.Nikkole Salter and Danai Gurira. Kirk Douglas Theater, Los Angeles. It was hard to ignore this touring production of the off-Broadway hit. Topical without being cloying. Moving without being trite. It felt like the start of a movement more than it did a stage play. Inspirational.




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