This column’s late. I got bit but good by that bug going around. “Re-view” a year — would that were possible, literally re-see favorite shows and performances of 2008. But they’re gone. Live theater is so perishable that even when someone videos a production it’s not the same. What once was an electric exchange between the performers and the audience flattens out on the screen as you watch an event from the past, in passive mode.
I’d love to re-view Cygnet Theatre’s Fences. Even start backwards, when the opening-night crowed roared during the curtain call. August Wilson’s drama’s about Troy Maxson, an African-American baseball player, and the way the audience hollered you’d think the Padres just won the World Series.
Okay, okay…pretty far-fetched, but that’s how it might sound.
I can still hear Sylvia M’Lafi Thompson, who played Troy’s wife Rose, shout at her man, “I’ve been standing in this same place for 18 years. I’ve been standing with you!” And when he crosses her: “You take…and don’t even know nobody’s giving.” The sense of violation, the unleashed rage — we could have been watching Greek tragedy.
Antonio T.J. Johnson played Troy, one of American theater’s most complexly drawn characters, both fenced in and an erector of invisible walls. Unlike some actors, who have turned the role into a shining-star vehicle, Johnson made us take Troy’s “crookeds with the straights.”
Johnson directed a production I’d love to see again — and wish many more theatergoers could have: Common Ground Theatre’s Waiting to be Invited. In Atlanta, 1964, four African-American women ride a bus to Marsh’s Department Store. They will order lunch — and break the discrimination barrier. S.M. Shepard-Massat’s comedy-drama follows a simple action, a bus ride, and builds to its historical significance. The quartet is among the first to test the Supreme Court’s ruling. What’s at stake begins to dawn on women “who have never been integrated before.” Ably directed by Johnson, and backed by Jason Connor’s wonderful sound design (you could almost smell the exhaust fumes), the performers practically put the audience on that bus.
I was more impressed by the La Jolla Playhouse’s uneven Memphis than with its vaunted Xanadu. Maybe it was the “heaven on wheels” hype touting the latter, but it left me underwhelmed, while Memphis came with little fanfare and had one of the best musical performances I’ve seen in some time.
Chad Kimball played Huey, a backwoods hipster in the ’50s. At first you didn’t know if Huey — based on “Daddy-O” Dewey Phillips, a manic Memphis deejay who helped popularize rock ’n’ roll — was genuine or just a scammer. It didn’t take Kimball long to show that, even though “normal” for Huey is anyone else’s over-the-top, he’s rock-bottom sincere. And, like TON3X in the Rep’s Princess and the Black-Eyed Pea, just when you think he’d hit his highest note, Kimball vaulted up an octave and strutted his vocal stuff.
The Arts and Entertainment channel, which rarely offers either, occasionally screens The Iceman Tapes, in which Richard Kulinski, a mob contract killer, talks about his crimes as if describing a bland salad. Actors study every frame of the interview (especially the moment a psychiatrist makes him angry) as a study in evil. In the second scene of Ion Theatre’s Bash, Rachael Van Wormer verged on Kulinski’s volcanic-iceberg state: a Medea in blue jeans.
Also at Ion: Linda Libby played Franz Xavier Kroetz’s Miss Rasch. For 65 minutes she goes about her evening, doing simple, everyday actions — and never speaks a word. What’s clear: she has a compulsion for order (Miss Rasch really lines up those soup can labels). Then she flicks a pruned toenail onto the immaculate floor, and you realize that something has gone gravely wrong. David Mamet said the key to writing plays is what you leave out. It’s also the key to Libby’s achievement.
I’d love to re-view Larry Herron’s splendid Mobius in UCSD’s The Physicists, the sanest insane person on the planet. Also, the complete 2008 works of Jo Anne Glover and Amanda Sitton; Bobby Plascencia’s gritty street-poet in the Rep’s Water and Power; Bruce Turk and Celeste Ciulla’s repertory roles in the Old Globe’s summer festival; Jessica Watkins’s Rosencrantz at UCSD; Joshua Edward Johnson’s Upper West Side schemer in New Village Art’s This Is Our Youth.
Most productions fade in memory (some even during a performance), while others grow in time. Diversionary’s Yank! was the latter. The musical’s about gays in the military — in World War II. Even amid a crack ensemble cast, Tom Zohar stood out as Stu, who fought a private war within the war courageously. Amy Biedel played a dozen women and sang a dozen different musical styles, all memorable.
I’d seen Ted Tally’s Terra Nova at the Old Globe years before and thought the small Compass Theatre stage might cramp its polar sweep. Not so. Inukshuk Production Company’s inaugural effort took us to the South Pole, where Robert Falcon Scott refused to rely on sled dogs: he lost the race (against Roald Amundsen) and his life in the process. Under Marybeth Bielawski-DeLeo’s smart direction, Tom McAndrew headed a strong ensemble as Scott, a man who slowly became “abandoned by hope.”
The Old Globe’s Dancing in the Dark needed rethinking, but I would dearly love to see Adam Heller and Beth Leavel’s tribute to Betty Comden and Adolph Green, the famous collaborators, one more time. In an unforgettable sequence, Heller and Leavel’s characters pitch their new musical to backers — songs, scenes, dialogue, all of it, abridged. The result’s a tour de force, done at a coronary-inducing pace.
Designer of the year: Jennifer Brawn Giddings showed an astonishing versatility. She created costumes for, among others, Yank! (WWII military), Moxie’s Bleeding Kansas (Central Plains fare, circa 1856), The Princess and the Black-Eyed Pea (gold-flecked African chic), and Diversionary’s Scrooge in Rouge (19th Century musical hall joins A Christmas Carol, the 25 or 30 outfits pure period and instantly funny). And those are just the costumes she designed from October to December.
The year’s top scenic designs: Derek McLane’s huge set for 33 Variations turned the La Jolla Playhouse stage into not just an archive of musical scores, hanging in rows, but also the mind of Ludwig van Beethoven. Combined with David Lander’s excellent lighting, the set revealed the tempestuous creative process of the master.
Lee Savage turned the Cassius Carter into a boxing ring for In This Corner, exact in every detail. Also at the Old Globe, Alexander Dodge designed the majestic interior of a Victorian mansion, for The Pleasure of His Company, its nine-foot-tall windows overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge (in act 1, York Kennedy’s lights fashioned an amazing sunset, from soft yellow to deep rose, behind the bridge).
The Listener by Liz Duffy Adams takes place in a postapocalyptic future of isolated stragglers and junk heaps. Moxie Theatre lived up to its name by hauling tons of detritus into the Lyceum Space for designer Amy Chini’s audacious set: a mound of hubcaps, wheels, warped metal, rusty slag.
Mo`olelo Performing Arts Company’s Permanent Collection was about an artistic legacy, and David F. Weiner’s set qualified as a work of art: a gallery, with a colorful Cézanne center-stage, flanked by black, see-through screens, behind which stood rooms and entryways (and the catacomb-like suggestion of more behind them). Depending on where Jason Bieber cast his lights, the set would open or narrow like a camera’s shutter.
One last: the renovated Balboa Theatre, which hadn’t hosted a full-dress musical in umpteen years, became the launching site for a nationally touring production of Spring Awakening. The spare, adamant production, and the grand old stage, were a perfect fit.