Friday, December 23, 2016

Dozen Best of 2016

No real spoilers to speak on, soooooo...

Been doing the reviewer gig for some years now.  As the number of theatres inviting me to attend and critique their works have grown, so too has my hat size.  Only a matter of time until I did one of these lists then.  However, I refuse to indulge in more negativity than absolutely necessary.  Behold therefore a Dozen Best List for the year about to end.  No Dozen Worst will be forthcoming.  Just don't want to go there.

Luckily for me, so many wonderful programs fall my way I had to limit myself to actual plays.  I mention this because a few shows like the gut-wrenchingly beautiful Girl Gods and Hex aren't really plays per se, which gives the out of allowing me to keep this list a reasonable length...

In no particular order (save perhaps maybe reversed order of viewing, I think kinda/sorta):

Hansel and Gretel Bluegrass at the 24th Street Theatre pretty much contains all I love in theatre.  It manages to tell a story in a way only theatre itself can, sparking the imagination first and foremost while at the same time using a dazzling (yet unintrusive) multimedia set of tools.  Yet at its heart remains a fantastic cast of actors bringing a kind of myth--in this case a fairy tale--to life in a brand spanking new way.

Ajax in Iraq counts as similar revelation--a tour-de-force of different theatrical styles across the ages as a modern story of US soldiers in Iraq play out intertwined with the tale of Ajax in the Trojan War, as told by Sophocles.  One of the most powerful pieces of theatre from the entire year and hopefully to be staged again before long.

The Suitcase as the Echo became one of the most fun, most heart-warming (in the deepest sense) theatrical efforts of 2016.  A softly presentational tale about a middle age man's revelation on his father, a man he never knew and never was told much about, yet for whom he quietly yearned for decades.  Not a story of nations, but of the connection between souls across time--and the ripples such connections can leave in their wake.

Othello at ZJU was a remounting of a production from last year so I almost didn't count it. Yet it remained one of the most powerful productions on many levels.  Dizzying in it re-imagination of Shakespeare's rather sordid murder story -- honestly, most productions of this play fail to entice me for this very reason -- Josh T. Ryan's direction and a wild, wonderful cast brought new life to this work in ways that never failed to at the least provoke a powerful reaction.

A Gulag Mouse may be cheating, since both playwright and director are friends of mine, but that doesn't change the fact this show fascinated me from the first image, then hit me in gut before the play's end several times.

Women Beware Women, a somewhat obscure Jacobean tragedy, proved the second time the Yours Is Mine theatre company took a classic work then rocked my world with it.  While the performances across the board reached wonderful heights, the entire production overall made my jaw drop.  In a single room, they made us feel as if we were simply there with these characters, watching it all by candlelight, with all the intimacy of a private party.  I eagerly await their next production!

The Dryway at Son of Semele was, I think, the first play I reviewed in 2016, and still haunts my memory. A three-woman musical retelling of a medieval legend, about three mermaids banished from the ocean by their mother, this single hour of theatre sucked me in the way I long to happen every time I take my seat.  It also managed to both surprise yet feel inevitable--a tricky feat yet often turns out a hallmark of the best theatre.

Lunatics and Actors by Four Clowns continued in that company's tradition of always doing something new, always making it different, always making it superbly.  Laughs and tears, horror and revelation were in store as a Victorian (?) scientist proceeded to lecture on the brain, using theatre and the insane as his milieu--with troubling, hilarious, insightful and very disturbing moments piling up one after another into our nervous systems.

Tempest Redux quite simply is the best version of this Shakespeare play I have ever seen, bar none,  Quite apart from the technical wonders going into the production, its central conceit digs deeper into the human soul than any other production of this play--or indeed of most plays--I have ever seen.  Were I drawing up a Top Dozen Plays for my entire life, this production would be on the list.

Occupation at the 2016 Fringe Festival has stayed with me, a genuinely challenging piece that in restrospect maybe should be staged again, perhaps even expanded in the wake of the election.  Taking place amidst a dystopian (but not, just to be precise, totalitarian) future America, it follows a group of women in that future time trying to make their way, heal their souls, make peace with the world, and decide for themselves the right thing to do.  Sounds simple, doesn't it?  Yet the depth of how this one-hour play explored that idea reminds me more than anything of a really profoundly beautiful haiku.

One of the Nice Ones, again at the Echo, is an extremely difficult play to describe, in the same sense and in some ways for similar reasons as it is hard to describe The Usual Suspects to those who haven't seen it.  I was definitely shocked, multiple times.  I laughed too many times to count, from barely suppressed giggles to out loud guffaws!  And I cried, not because someone tugged at my heart a la Timmy and his favorite dog were reunited etc.  No, I found myself feeling the yawing pain that might warp a human being, twisting them yet bestowing a strange power.

The Superhero and His Charming Wife makes for a rare but treasured kind of theatre--the more or less deliberate creation of a Myth.  What maybe proves most impressive, and startling, is how it focuses upon modern iconography, modern myths to tell its take.  Instead of a Knight in shining armor, we have a Superhero!  The danger that threatens is no Evil Ring or Dark Lord, but rather an existential question whose answer must prove terrifying.  I utterly adored this show, and frankly hope to see it staged once more!

I'm not going to mention a bunch of honorable mentions, because that would just go on and on forever.  My enormous good fortune is getting to see so much excellent theatre here in Los Angeles, for which I feel deep gratitude.  Thanks for reading these pretentious but sincere words.  Here's to more of the same in 2017 (including perhaps news of one or two plays I may be directing...!)

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