I saw a crappy play last night and decided rather than depress myself by writing about it, I’d rather finish up something positive. And that would be the Out West Arts top ten theater productions of 2011. I published the OWA picks for the year's top music events a few weeks ago, but the theater year went right up until the last minute, and the show I saw on New Year’s Eve made it onto the list, so it was worth the wait. As in previous years the theater list includes both straight plays, musicals, dance and comedy events. And while I recognize the division between the music list and the theater list is arbitrary, the intent was not to separate the two as much as provide space for theater performances that would always come in second after an opera or classical music performance in my own heart. So to give them their due, here are the things that most impressed me on stage in 2011.
1. Jerusalem by Jez Butterworth. Broadway, New York. By far the most ambitious, provocative and enjoyable play from last year was only that much more important given an unforgettable performance from the best stage actor working today, Mark Rylance. Funny and poignant this state of the nation play (that being England) managed to avoid any self-importance despite its dabbling in magical realism. A landmark play.
2. Let Me Down Easy written and performed by Anna Deavere Smith at The Broad Stage, Santa Monica, CA. The technique was quintessential Smith: a solo show where she recreates monologues from various real life interviews with persons famous and not. The subject was human frailty and the American healthcare system and its dysfunction. But the show was much more about the way we do and don't face death. Easily the most touching thing I saw all year.
3. One Man, Two Guvnors by Richard Bean. National Theater. London, UK. The oldest of Commedia dell’Arte gags and storylines are repackaged in England’s swinging sixties. Throw in the brilliant physical comedy of James Corden and a superb cast and you have hours of uninhibited laughter.
4. The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures by Tony Kushner. Public Theater, New York. Yes these neurotic characters can ramble on and on for quite a long time. But there were few moments this year that were as engaging as anything in Kushner’s expansive drama about a family and a country on the brink.
5. The Method Gun by Rude Mechs. Kirk Douglas Theater, Culver City, CA. This surreal and beautiful comedy about an imagined theater troupe spending years rehearsing a drastically abbreviated version of A Streetcar Named Desire without their guru and founder was surprising as much for its off kilter approach as for its warm heart. It was also the highlight of the first installment of the RADAR L.A. theater festival which will hopefully become a permanent feature in the city.
6. Uncle Vanya by Anton Checkhov. Sydney Theater Company, Kennedy Center, Washington, DC. A big star, like Cate Blanchett in a high profile role is one things. A whole company of performances just as great is rarer and these Australians’ only U.S. appearance was radioactive.
7. Circle Mirror Transformation by Annie Baker. South Coast Repertory, Costa Mesa, CA. Another theatrical comedy, Baker’s tale of the private pains and joys of students in a community center acting class unfolded with subtlety and a deft ease under the direction of Sam Gold.
8. The Tempest: Without a Body by Lemi Ponifasio. REDCAT. Los Angeles, CA. This avant-garde dance piece from Maori activist and choreographer Lemi Ponifasio grabbed audiences by the throat with its metallic noise soundtrack and ethereal visions that could turn menacing unexpectedly. REDCAT’s presentation of the work in L.A.’s historic downtown Million Dollar Theater was a brilliant and smart addition to these images that continue to lurk in the back of my mind.
9. The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare. Either the Public Theater production in New York or the Theater for a New Audience on tour at The Broad Stage. Santa Monica, CA. This tricky Shakespeare play got two magnificent big scale productions and two great and very different Shylocks in Al Pacino and F. Murray Abraham. Daniel Sullivan’s fresh and clear-eyed staging in New York deservedly made Lily Rabe into a much bigger star and Darko Tresnjak‘s contemporary Wall Street setting galvanized TNA’s urgent production.
10. Other Desert Cities by Jon Robin Baitz. Broadway, New York. An incredible cast fronted by the likes of Rachel Griffiths and Stockard Channing made this family drama and comedy especially enjoyable. The reassessment of the recent American past and how that history played out in individual lives made this an especially welcome new play.
Honorable Mention: The Druid Theater’s production of McDonagh’s The Cripple of Inishmaan at the Kirk Douglas Theater; Sondheim’s Follies on Broadway starring Bernadette Peters; Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia transferred from London to New York with Billy Crudup; Juan and John Robert Guenvuer Smith’s latest solo work on history and tolerance in Los Angeles at the Kirk Douglas Theater; Bill Rauch’s sharp, witty new Measure for Measure at The Oregon Shakespeare Festival; The SITI Company’s modern outdoor version of Euripides’ The Trojan Women at The Getty Villa; Kristoffer Diaz' The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity in its West Coast premiere at The Geffen Playhouse; Shakespeare’s Globe Theater’s revival of The Comedy of Errors at The Broad Stage; American Ballet Theater’s production of Shostakovich’s The Bright Stream on tour with Dance at the Music Center; and Faustin Leykula’s more more more ... future at REDCAT.