Saturday, December 30, 2017

Baker's Dozen Best of 2017

Well, 2017 is over and frankly, good riddance.  Not that I didn't have some wonderful times within the last twelves months, but overall it sucked -- mostly due to the November before last and the horror-inducing consequences.  Mostly.

But now here are my twelve (actually thirteen because I could not choose) best productions I personally saw on the theatre scene in Los Angeles since this exact time last year.  And no, they are in no particular order at all. Even whittling this list to a mere thirteen was hard enough!

bled for the household truth proved the last member of this list. If you checked on Better Lemons you'll find critics evenly divided between bitter and sweet.  Nothing in between. Doesn't surprise me in the least. This marks a deeply disturbing, intimate, sympathetic and touching portraits of seriously damaged souls trying to very, very hard to heal themselves. Yeah, the process and journey can be ugly, but the struggle is heroic even if on the scale of "mere" individual human beings.

My Janis was quite simply the best one person show I have ever seen, and a powerful piece of extremely intimate theatre. No long biographical conversations here, nor a description of what happened.  Rather Janis Joplin is alone, speaking to no one until the phone rings. That conversation reveals itself as the most important one in her life, inviting her back to San Francisco where she began JANIS JOPLIN the legend.  I was awstruck.
 Normal from the Vagrancy is one of three shows on this list from the 2017 Hollwyood Fringe.  My Janis is one, and shares one thing in common --both are about real human beings.  Real as in historical. Peter Kurten was an especially grotesque serial killer executed by a Germany about to elect Adolf Hitler.  That Germany called Peter "normal."  The implications, explored with delirious showmanship, made my flesh crawl.

The Dreamer Examines His Pillow was a play I saw in New York way back in the 1980s. I can honestly say this production blew that one away, far more than the original. A man and woman love each other, and she goes to her father for advice. Out of that so supremely simple idea comes an exploration of life's meaning and how we give each other meaning along with all the pain, disappointment and yes, joy.

Blackbird left me shaken.  Truly. In common with several other choices this year, it consisted essentially of a conversation -- in this case (not surprisingly) between a man and a woman. We eventually learn here is a pedophile and the former-child who was his victim/girlfriend/lover.  I actually squirmed more than once, feeling what the play revealed proved was almost too intimate for words. I became totally engrossed, up to and including a conclusion that made my heart cry.

Macbeth in Rhythm is the best production of "The Scottish Tragedy" I for one have ever seen, certainly the most abstract while still precise, and in the end the most courageous. Six actors used their bodies in some of the most incredible ways to tell this story, to bring the play almost to the point of dance but while keeping the dialogue intact.  In the last twelve months I've seen a lot of Macbeths and this was the best of them all.
Shakes-lesque! makes the only musical on this list, and maybe the premise--a burlesque mash up of all of William Shakespeare--sounds too trivial, in fact what it turned out to be was more like a dream journey in which the Bard visits all his future works.  Yeah the show is full of puns, full of scantily clad ladies removing most of their clothes, full of silliness.  But it also delves into some darker matters, and that is one reason I believed at the end the Bard felt creatively ready.

Artificial Flowers at ZJU is another conversation between a man and woman.  The cast was amazing, the story obviously deeply personal, and frankly felt almost too honest for anything like comfort. That one of the cast not only wrote the play but directed it blew me away!  As I said in the review, here is a portrait of a certain kind of dysfunctional relationship what changes forever one night, reaches that breaking point and I cannot quite tell what direction the pieces will fall.

The Physicists is a seldom performed play anymore, although its heydey in the 1960s made it famous. This dark, even absurd comedy about madness and doom was performed for the Fringe, taking it even further than the script suggests in its examination of how humanity seems to have doomed itself.  Maybe.  It is supposed to be a cautionary tale, after all.

Cannibals Alone at Theatre Unleashed was the first play in the Los Angeles area to reply to the election of Donald Trump.  It remains one of the most simply harrowing image of a terrible future, a portrait of individuals dehumanized by policies that found compassion ultimately incomprehensible. But was this because of policies?  Or was the lack of compassion what led to this heartless life?  Or does it matter?
Cat On a Hot Tin Roof from Anteus Company followed a pattern I've noticed (and applauded) in re-imagining such a quintessentially Realistic playwright away from Naturalism and towards the surreal. Thus in this case the set seems almost like a sculpture, with perspective shifting in each act. Sounds cool but what makes it really work is the forgiveness with which the whole production treats everyone. Yeah, some of them are just awful people. But it becomes harder and harder to hate them. Instead we increasingly feel pity as the way to save themselves lies open for them -- a way none of them can or will take.
Any Night gobsmacked me. It totally put me on the edge of my seat, remained compelling every single moment, yet never stopped surprising me over and over and over again.  This makes for no small feat!  Essentially framed as one of those thrillers where deciding who to trust becomes the focal point of everything, it adds to the problem by taking away our knowledge of what we might view as real.  Like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, we end up questioning everything, and until the very end the pieces never quite fit perfectly into place.  But when they do, it proves heart-breaking.
Grimly Handsome at CityGarage likewise uses the a genre -- in this case a police procedural -- and its expectations to play with your mind, re-examine premises and more, make you feel startling things about the characters (who sometimes seem to somehow bleed into one another).  The Christmas Tree Ripper is a serial killer once again on the prowl, although now (although the police don't know it) the Ripper is two men. More, the victim seemed to have a weird fascination with the idea of her own danger -- all these details echoed in the relationships between the detectives and a wife of one of one.  This one, like pretty much all my choices, haunts me still.

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