Dec 16, 2004

Topping Off 2004

Last night someone asked me what my favorite shows of the year were. I could only name the Fountain’s Exits and Entrances off the top of my head. As I’ve mentioned here before, I freeze up when I have to make these impromptu lists—at least, thanks to this weblog, I can more easily summon the names of current shows that I or my peers are recommending.

So what was the topography of my theatregoing year—the peaks, the valleys, the bumps? I’ve looked over the list of shows I’ve seen (totalled up here, minus the shows I’ve seen since that post) and recalled which I loved and touted, which I deplored, and which I thought were overrated by my peers.

My top 20:

Caroline, or Change at the Ahmanson Theatre: The best new American musical since Ragtime is better here than it was on Broadway. Seldom has a lead character driven by such pure, irredeemable rage driven an entertainment so ebullient—Gypsy and Sweeney Todd are about the closest analogues I can think of. Even less frequently do we hear a sung-through score of such grit and substance.

Enchanted April at Pasadena Playhouse: I can still see lead Nancy Bell centerstage, standing against a grim, staid London backdrop and dreaming out loud of an Italian getaway, and then taking us there. This was escapism of a purity and sweetness we seldom see onstage.

Exits and Entrances at the Fountain Theatre: That Athol Fugard chose to have the Fountain mount the premiere of this supple chamber drama already makes this a bona fide world-class event. What elevates it to one L.A. theatre’s shining moments is the sensitivity and crispness of Stephen Sachs’ direction, the acting of the alert William Dennis Hurley, and, above all, the performance-of-a-lifetime by Morlan Higgins—a virtuoso actor playing a virtuoso actor and making the union seamless and searing.

A Flea in Her Ear at A Noise Within: Farce is a delicate form, but when your cast is as scandalously good as directors Geoff and Julia Rodriguez Elliots’ was, you earn the license to break a little china. Indeed, what distinguished this uproarious, surefooted rendition was not lapidarian precision but lip-smacking relish for low-comedy chaos. There wasn’t a dry seat in the house, as they say.

Golden Prospects at the Powerhouse Theatre: Telling early L.A. history as a classic mellerdrama was a serviceable enough idea on its own, but in Colin Campbell’s marvelous production, the cast and designers’ spot-on mimicry gave these urban legends a pop-up-storybook appeal and gentle ripples of unforced irony.

Hairspray at the Pantages Theatre: So Bruce Vilanch was no Harvey Fierstein. This infectious hunk of mind candy still had the irresistible Marissa Janet Winokur as its tasty center, and it retained just enough of the original John Waters tone—that distinctive cocktail of innocence and irreverence that makes him so essential.

Hard Times at Evidence Room: I found Bart DeLorenzo’s straightforward adaptation surprisingly rich and moving, particularly in the performances of stalwart Ames Ingham, cherubic Colleen Kane, blustery Don Oscar Smith (who’s really been coming into his own of late as an Evidence Room treasure), and heartsick Michael A. Sheppard. It’s not only A Noise Within that can button up these costume dramas.

Holy Days at Theatre 40: The year’s most under-considered gem (though it did get some Ovation nominations, almost no critics saw it). You could almost taste the dust and despair, and feel the terrible strain on the farm family ties, in director Ann Hearn’s letter-perfect rendering of this modest, affecting Sally Nemeth drama.

An Infinite Ache at the Black Dahlia Theatre: It’s no wonder major and emerging playwrights want their work done at this tiny black box theatre. This production of David Schulner’s affecting relationship drama had a deceptively effortless feel and a surprisingly resourceful set by Craig Siebels.

Letting Go of God at the Hudson Backstage: Julia Sweeney’s solo show about losing her religion isn’t just screamingly funny, particularly for anyone with any fealty, however faded, to a faith. Once disarmed by laughter, we feel the seriousness of Sweeney’s inquiry in a heart-deep place no erudite essay on could penetrate.

Like a Dog on Linoleum at the Elephant Asylum Theatre: Tiny, white-haired Leslie Jordan could reduce a funeral party to helpless laughter with his endless supply of David Sedaris-like tales of debauched delight. But they take on a cathartic arc when shaped into this searching show about Jordan’s recovery from substance abuse and his late-blooming sobriety about his faith, his family, and his sexuality.

M Butterfly at East West Players: The big news of this revival wasn’t so much director Chay Yew’s single-mindedly stark vision of David Henry Hwang’s play—this rusty-prison-grate approach did eventually pay off, after some rough going along the way—but the strength of the play, which emerges as a late-20th-century classic about the complications of post-imperial desire.

Bitter Bierce and Miss Margarida’s Way at the Zephyr Theatre: This matched pair of solo performances by John Billingsley and Bonita Friedericy delivered stingingly sharp, witty, and haunting reflections on the illiberal impulses of a real-life muckraker and a fictional pedagogue, respectively. It’s a shame we don’t see these two fierce, outsized acting talents on L.A. stages more often.

Peace Squad Goes 99 at the Evidence Room: Ken Roht has a captive, ready-to-rock audience for these annual holiday hullaballoos. So it’s stunning how far beyond our expectations he and his partner in crime, costumer Ann Closs-Farley, bother to go each year, joyfully layering in so many ironies, homages, and filigrees into this cartoon fable that we’re still sated and surprised. Can this ER tradition possibly keep getting better?

The School for Scandal at the Mark Taper Forum: This one is still fresh in my memory, so it may loom larger than it ought to in my year-end reflections. Still, it’s likely that this unfailingly enjoyable entertainment will remain high on my list of deft classical revivals, not least because this is a play that’s never much excited me. Director/star Brian Bedford here makes its warmth glow and its wit stick.

Self-Defense at the Actors’ Gang: A dramatic return to form for this troupe. Not that it hasn’t done some good work in the years since Tim Robbins returned to the helm--just that Carson Kreitzer’s striking gonzo examination of serial killer Aileen Wournos felt, under Beth Milles’ direction, like a bracing shot of the old vintage. It didn’t hurt that Cynthia Ettinger, Dina Platias, and Gary Kelley, among others, seemed as edgy and fearless as ever.

Summertime, Theatre @ Boston Court: A minor Chuck Mee piece, surely, but much better than the reviews suggested (and much better than the recent A Perfect Wedding). I won’t soon forget Tom Buderwitz’s autumnal set, or Bjorn Johnson’s droll striptease, or Elizabeth Huffman’s hilariously passionate effusions. Under Michael Michetti’s direction, Mee’s theme-and-variations musings on romantic folly had a distinctly Chekhovian flair.

Topdog/Underdog at the Mark Taper Forum: This justly acclaimed masterwork by Suzan-Lori Parks is like a racial vaudeville with real blood, and the performances of Larry Gilliard Jr. and Harold Perrineau did it full, pent-up justice.

Waking Up in Lost Hills, Cornerstone Theater Company at Lost Hills School Auditorium: The first rural residency by Cornerstone in more than a decade was worth the two-hour drive. Here, at last, we saw this troupe in the element whence it came: a middle-of-nowhere town, an adaptation of a familiar folk tale to the local setting, an all-age cast of community members, a high school auditorium. Perhaps most heartening was that this looked for all the world like the Cornerstone we Angelenos already know and love—and it was a good sign that, while the company has taken on ever more ambitious subject matter and professional collaborations, it hasn’t lost touch with its original inspiration.

Wonder of the World at West Coast Ensemble: This shaggy-dog picaresque by David Lindsay-Abaire struck me as a more user-friendly cousin to Christopher Durang’s Betty’s Summer Vacation, and while it doesn’t come close to Lindsay-Abaire’s moving Kimberly Akimbo, it’s at least as good as his Fuddy Meers, and director Richard Israel handled its cruelty and absurdity with just the right breezy touch.

NEXT: My worst nights at theatre in 2004, and plays I liked just fine but not as much as my peers.

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