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THE YEAR IN REVIEW: PLAYS AND PRODUCTIONS. Last year, several shows arrived ballyhoo-first. Pre–opening-night accolades promised “Broadway bound” quality and SRO houses both here and in New York. Some of them, however, were a letdown, like the La Jolla Playhouse’s Cry-Baby, which promised John Waters’s critique of all things apple pie but gave us Donnie and Marie in Dixie Peach pomade. Others were a fright: the Playhouse’s Carmen blared and brayed and tweaked every moment: Cirque du Overthetop. Both productions did commercial takes on their material. Do they signal a trend at the Playhouse, erstwhile showcase of Peter Sellars and Robert Woodruff?

As disturbing was the Old Globe’s watered-down Measure for Measure. You could hear director Paul Mullins thinking, “Problem play? No prob.” He cookie-cut the script as a comedy, paring away (sometimes mocking) anything that threatened a tidy, crowd-pleaser ending. This was Shakespeare for people who don’t like Shakespeare.

Some of 2007’s most memorable shows began quietly, even humbly, then crept up on you.

Cygnet Theatre opened 2007 with Dael Orlandersmith’s haunting Yellowman, which takes a dream-destroying look at “internal racism” among African Americans. Monique Gaffney and Mark Broadnax played “dark-skinned” Alma and “high yellow” Eugene (and several others) in a slow dance of separation, as prejudices tore them apart.

The production’s nonverbal theatricality was so eloquent it was as if the playwright attended every rehearsal, encouraging the actors to stress subtexts and key moments with revealing gestures and movements. Truth is: except for a single line about a bare stage and two chairs that should sit far apart, the script has no stage directions. On the page it’s mostly monologues. Director Esther Emery and her cast and crew invented everything between the lines and crafted one of 2007’s most creative, moving productions.

Another surprise: Harvey Fierstein’s Catered Affair, at the Old Globe, came with the “Broadway bound” fanfare of a new musical. But instead of revving up the audience with a hot opening number, several women entered, casually singing “la…la…” as if warming up. It felt like being backstage, behind the scenes of a musical, and, it turned out, that’s what Fierstein had in mind.

A “play with music,” and not a musical, Catered avoided externals (it’s almost as minimalist as Our Town) and dove deep into the lives of a lower-middle-class Bronx family. A simple “I do” unpacked decades of repressed feelings — repressed 1950s feelings at that. At first the premise looked unpromising. But the production relentlessly grounded itself in emotional truth, and the results were as wonderful as unexpected. Someone called it “Arthur Miller set to music.”

Last year saw some fine directorial work: Esther Emery for Yellowman and Communicating Doors at Cygnet; Kristianne Kurner’s buoyant Sailor’s Song at New Village Arts; Frank Galati’s after the quake and Dominique Serrand’s Deception at La Jolla Playhouse. But John Doyle’s direction of Catered stands as foremost among equals. His behind-the-scenes approach turned the musical genre inside out.

He built many scenes with silence (even fought for them, it sometimes felt, against the audience’s wishes). The most unforgettable: Faith Prince’s Aggie, the mother slowly coming apart, reaches the condition Wordsworth wrote about, where thoughts lie “too deep for tears.” What does she do? Nothing. She just sits, unable to proceed. In effect, Doyle devised a literal show-stopper: absolute silence. Finally, when Aggie can, she rises, crosses the stage, and walks up a fire escape. She just needed that time alone. There was nothing she, or we, could do to help her along. In these days of antsy, frame-by-frame stage business, Doyle took a huge risk in doing nothing — and fashioned the most eloquent theatrical moment in 2007.

Catered will open in New York sometime this year. Most oddsmakers don’t give the unsplashy, nondeliberately ingratiating production much of a chance. Well, if it doesn’t enjoy a healthy run, I for one will think less of Broadway.

The show that really snuck up on people was New Village Arts’s Sailor’s Song. As written, John Patrick Shanley’s comedy-drama, about making fundamental choices, does your thinking for you (“just do it,” his characters urge Rich, the commitment-fearing protagonist, as if in an extended Nike commercial). But the staging, directed by Kristianne Kurner and choreographed by Robin Krist, often leapt in an instant from pale, pimply old reality to the wisp and fluidity of dreams.

The music ranged from Strauss’s “Blue Danube” to Otis Redding’s “Try a Little Tenderness” (the latter for a Dance of Death). Somehow, Manny Fernandes, who played Rich, rowed a boat across the stage and then, as if to show off, did some fancy spins and curlicues — without effort; even, it seemed, without gimmicks. Magic.

New Village Arts is reprising Sailor’s Song in August. More good news: last year, San Diego Black Ensemble Theatre and Cygnet Theatre offered possibly the most popular series of staged readings in local theater history: The August Wilson Cycle. Several times, the off-night series had to turn away patrons — for a staged reading, mind you, without set, props, or costumes. Wilson’s words have that much appeal.

One of last year’s reads, Fences, will receive a full production at Cygnet beginning January 26. The companies recently announced they’ll continue the series in 2008 with Wilson’s Jitney, Two Trains Running, King Hedley II, and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.

Two of the year’s best performances crept up on no one. And in both cases the actors avoided what may be the biggest trap of all: clue the audience that, while your character may be an elitist snob, or a mean-spirited drunk, or a reeker of evil, you, the cuddly, lovable, wondrous human being playing the role, are certainly none of these things.

When they walked onstage in W;t at the North Coast Rep, and in St. Nicholas at Cygnet, Rosina Reynolds and Ron Choularton left all traces of themselves in the wings. Reynolds played a rigid, control-freak scholar, dying of cancer, and Choularton a blood-sucking theater critic, who cavorts with vampires, unforgettably.

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