Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

My Ten and Only - Best of Theater '10

December 27, 2010

Scott Shepherd in Gatz Photo: Paula Court

If there was any theme to the best less-musically-oriented theatrical performances this year, it was that more is more. Many of the year’s highlights proved that scope and stamina can prove to be the deciding factor between success and failure on stage, and that numerous soft spots can often be outshone by a larger, greater project. But whether short or long, here’s a look back at my favorites in theater from 2010.

1) Gatz from Elevator Repair Service at The Public Theater, New York (10/10) A daylong marathon word-for-word reading of The Great Gatsby doesn’t sound like a great theater event, but a good book turned out to be the best thing I saw on stage all year. The ERS managed to make this transposition of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby from New England in the 20s to a modern day shabby office a sublime live experience. At the heart of this show is a magnificent performance from Scott Shepherd that provides both an everyman link to the narrative about the darker side of the American dream. So simple and yet so profound.

Members of Wunderbaum recreate the work of Paul McCarthy in Looking for Paul Photo: REDCAT/Wunderbaum

2) Looking for Paul from Wunderbaum at REDCAT (11/10) The return visit from this experimental Dutch theater collective was easily the funniest and most audacious thing I saw all year. In a broadly tongue-in-cheek exploration of issues related to public art and performance, the troupe took on the work of Los Angeles art legend Paul McCarthy both as a source of conflict and wellspring of inspiration. The recreation of McCarty’s take on Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? that closed the evening was disgusting (in a good way) and unforgettable.

Zachary Quinto and Billy Porter Photo: Joan Marcus/Signature Theater 2010

3) Angles in America by Tony Kushner at The Signature Theater in New York (10/10) While it may not have lived up to everyone’s biggest expectations of a high-profile Broadway transfer, this intimate, stripped down revival proved undoubtedly that Kushner’s play is as important now as ever. And that there is a public very eager to experience all seven hours of it. A wonderful revival by any measure.

Judith Ivey and Patch Darragh Photo: Craig Schwartz/CTG 2010

4) The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams at The Mark Taper Forum (9/10) This imported revival from New York included one of the best individual performances of the year from Judith Ivey who took a role known for its lack of histrionics and inviting the audience to identify directly with her, warts and all. The beautiful lighting, at times with nothing more than candles, created theatrical magic in the darkest and shabbiest of settings.

5) How Can You Stay in the House All Day and Not Go Anywhere? from Ralph Lemon/Cross Performance at REDCAT (10/10) Lemon and his troupe brought their cutting edge movement of freedom to Los Angeles in a multi-layered evening that covered loss, love and Tarkovsky’s Solaris. Undoubtedly the most thoughtful, complex, and amazing dance performance of the year.

Olga Wehrly and Tadhg Murphy in Penelope Photo: Robert Day

6) Penelope by Enda Walsh from the Druid Theater Company, St. Ann's Warehouse, New York (11/10) Homer's Odyssey gets the Walsh treatment with his characters' surreal gift of gab in this spectacular new play receiving its U.S. Premiere. Walsh loves to go for the biggest of issues, and this meditation on why we pursue love at all was hugely successful in a very good looking production.

7) American Night by Culture Clash at Oregon Shakespeare Festival (8/10) Los Angeles’ own comedy and theater collective traveled up to Oregon for the debut of a new work that kicked off the Festival’s “American Revolutions” initiative with the first in a series of play commissions on topics pertinent to American History. The show was one of many signs this year of the significant stamp that artistic director Bill Rauch is making on the festival. This hysterical and unabashedly political view of American history set a high standard for what’s to follow. It should be noted, as well, that OSF presented a superb version of Lynn Nottage’s Ruined this season.

Cloudia Swann and Tom McKay in Canopy of Stars from The Great Game: Afghanistan Photo: John Haynes

8) The Great Game: Afghanistan by various authors for the Tricycle Theater Company at Berkeley Repertory Theater (10/10) Another day long adventure that was equal parts teach-in, policy paper, and theatrical drama. This British import compiled of 12 brief one-acts by various authors reviewing the wide scope of Afghan history succeeded largely because of its perseverance and intensity, covering a topic in a huge amount of detail. It was unabashedly opinionated and certainly not what all audiences wanted to hear, but it was incredibly engrossing theater.

9) Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo by Rajiv Joseph at The Mark Taper Forum (4/10) The return of Joseph’s masterful tale of the Iraq war to Los Angeles the year after its local premiere proved that the play was in fact deserving of the Pulitzer Prize that it was passed over for this year. It will travel to Broadway in the Spring and will hopefully survive the requisite star casting of Robin Williams in the title role. Luckily, the rest of the original cast will stay intact, including the great Arian Moayed. So if you haven’t seen it yet, this should be one of your picks for 2011.

from Truth, Revised Histories, Wishful Thinking, and Flat Out Lies
Photo: Steven Gunther/John Jasperse Company 2010

10) Truth, Revised Histories, Wishful Thinking, and Flat Out Lies by John Jasperse Company at REDCAT (4/10) A vibrant, visually witty evening of dance from Jasperse and his troupe with more wry visual gags than most comedies can muster with pages of dialog. All that and sexy to boot. Another feather in REDCAT's cap this year.

Honorable Mentions: I'd be remiss not to mention The Wooster Group's important contributions to the theater scene here in L.A. this year with two visits at REDCAT. Elizabeth LeCompte and her troupe had two offerings this year, a revival of one of the group's oldest works, North Atlantic, and, in the Fall, the U.S. Premiere of their take on Tennessee Williams' Vieux Carré. Both shows were visually interesting and thoughtful. And while I found Vieux Carre´ surprisingly straight-forward compared to prior outings, the technologically savvy performances are always worth seeing.


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