Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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Best in Show 07 - theater edition

January 05, 2008

Cast of Philistines
Photo: Catherine Ashmore/NYT 2007

In fairness, and because I love lists, I like to have a separate theater top 10 for 2007 since I am also, admittedly, unfairly partial to performances that involve music. (My Best of 07 Music list is here.) Here’s what I loved most in theater for 2007:

1. Philistines by Maxim Gorky at the National Theater of Britain’s Lyttleton Theater, London 7/07. Wow, and more wow. This is perhaps my favorite simply because it way such a huge surprise to me. A dense and often ideological text was transformed into poetry with ample amounts of humor thrown in. All that, and the first of two masterful performances from Conleth Hill this year.

Rondi Reed, Sally Murphy, and Deanna Dunagan
Photo: Joan Marcus 2007

2. August: Osage County by Tracy Letts at the Imperial Theater, Broadway, New York, 12/07. What more praise can I heap on this already lauded play. No doubt, the awards will soon be rolling in for this remarkable work and ensemble performance that is equal parts bone and flesh. A concise and powerful view of the America we have become.

Anne-Marie Duff as Saint Joan
Photo: Tristram Kenton/Guardian 2007

3. Saint Joan by George Bernard Shaw at the National Theater of Britain’s Olivier Theater, London 7/07. It wasn’t just Russian intellectualism that received the gold-standard treatment this summer. The British took care of their own by casting a revelatory Anne-Marie Duff in a fluid and gripping version of what so easily turns to turgid gunk in lesser hands. Kudos to Marianne Elliott for giving Joan back to us.

4. The Seafarer by Conor McPherson at the Booth Theater, Broadway, New York, 12/07. It’s not always necessary to fly to London to sample the treasures being turned out by the National Theater of Britain these days. McPherson’s Faust-inspired work is dazzling and touching in the most surprising ways. Conleth Hill strikes again.

from Ten Chi
Photo: Tanztheater Wuppertal 2007

5. Ten Chi by Pina Bausch Tanztheater Wuppertal at Royce Hall, UCLA, Los Angeles. 11/07. Irreverent and at other times achingly beautiful, Bausch’s troupe amazed audiences all over the West Coast with the US premiere of this work that was both inspired by and strangely oblivious to Japanese culture. Snow and a giant whale tail – what more could you ask from a dance piece.

6. The Piano Teacher at South Coast Repertory, Orange County, 4/07 and Durango at East West Players, Los Angeles, 9/07 both by Julia Cho. While Tracy Letts is grabbing lots of deserved attention, he wasn’t the only American playwright making waves this year. Cho’s fascination with the tricks, both good and bad, memory plays on us seems an unending source for compelling drama. Both of her outings in LA this year were superior.

Frank Langella and Michael Sheen
Photo: Joan Marcus 2007

7. Frost/Nixon by Peter Morgan at the Bernard B Jacobs Theater, Broadway, New York 4/07. Frank Langella’s Tony winning performance was the jewel in the crown of Morgan’s history play. Sharp looking and well-paced, Morgan provided one of the most successful screen-to-stage career moves this year.

8. Yellow Face by David Henry Hwang at the Mark Taper Forum, Los Angeles, 5/07. Hwang’s semi-autobiographical send up of race and show business is probably the best work on the topic since Robert Townsend’s Hollywood Shuffle. Hoon Lee’s wonderful comic performance was a joy on both coasts.

Finbar Lynch and Lia Williams in The Hothouse
Photo: Tristram Kenton/Guardian 2007

9. Betrayal at Donmar Warehouse, London 7/07 and The Hothouse at the National Theater of Britain’s Lyttleton Theater 7/07 both by Harold Pinter. No doubt Pinter will be remembered for his bite, but there was much, much more to his work than this. These two pieces, early and later, demonstrated both qualities in two highlights of the summer season in London.

10. The Pillowman by Martin McDonagh at Berkeley Rep Theater, Berkeley, 3/07. McDonagh is the world's leading purveyor of optimism in the midst of the most unimaginably dreadful things. This West Coast premiere was hard to look away from despite one's strong desire to.

Honorable mention: Tom Stoppard's Rock' n' Roll; S. Epatha Merkerson in Come Back, Little Sheba at the Kirk Douglas Theater; Sir Ian McKellen in King Lear with the RSC at Royce Hall; medEia from Dood Paard at the Freud Playhouse; and Tug of War at the Getty Villa.

Most overrated: Black Watch by Gregory Burke and the National Theater of Scotland, Royce Hall, UCLA 9/07. Certainly filled with beautiful choreography, this otherwise hackneyed war story seemed to inexplicably throw grown men into tears. There seems more than enough real tragedy around these days to do that.

Most underrated: Yellow Face. See above.

Worst performance moment of the year: Hands down the worst thing I saw that I didn’t walk out of was the inexcusably awful and unnecessary revival of Kismet from English National Opera. Bad in almost every way.


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