Lois Markle as Violet Weston (center) with the cast of Tracy Letts’s Pulitzer Prize–winning play August: Osage County
  • Lois Markle as Violet Weston (center) with the cast of Tracy Letts’s Pulitzer Prize–winning play August: Osage County
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The Old Globe staged Tracy Lett’s August: Osage County and did a masterful job. Also at the Globe, Adrian Noble turned Shakespeare’s The Tempest into a musical with “wood notes wild.” The La Jolla Playhouse imported Des McAnuff’s heralded Jesus Christ Superstar, which dazzled with what was, in effect, a humble story. Spunky Ion Theatre dared to mount Tony Kushner’s two-part, six-and-a-half-hour Angels in America and did it justice. The North Coast Rep ran a steeplechase over, under, and through Marty Burnett’s art deco set and made Lend Me A Tenor the funniest show of the year. Cygnet gave us a Cabaret with a female Emcee.

Add to these an historic event: it took three theaters — Vantage, the San Diego Rep, and the La Jolla Playhouse — to bring Anna Deveare Smith to San Diego for the first time. To my knowledge, there has never been such a collaborative sharing of resources.

Like Culture Clash, Smith interviews the famous and the camera-shy, even people who think having 700 friends on Facebook is a crock. She weaves their stories around a theme: Fires in the Mirror (racial tensions in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights); Twilight: Los Angeles (reactions to the beating of Rodney King). Let Me Down Easy, which came to the Rep in May, was about death and dying — and, as a subtext, about living more fully.

Smith performed barefoot, as if at a house party, and used few props. In about ten seconds, often less, she became the person she portrayed. She was so micro-accurate, it was tempting to reverse the process: say, “Oh, sure, that’s so-and-so, she’s got him down pat.”

To play Violet Weston, the matriarchal monster in August: Osage County, Lois Markle made a major sacrifice: she smoked eight cigarettes for each performance — even though she quit 37 years ago and has loathed them ever since (and when she smoked she didn’t cheat; she inhaled, deeply, just as Violet would). A cancer stick dangling from her lip, her scraggly hair akimbo, Markle didn’t become Violet Weston; like the characters Smith portrayed, Violet was there all along.

As was Arthur Przybyszewski at the San Diego Rep. Our first look at Robert Foxworth, in Tracy Letts’s Superior Donuts, wasn’t promising: just a dull brown splotch — a long gray ponytail and a doper’s nod — propping up chairs in a donut shop. Turns out he ran the place. It also turned out he had quite a story. As Foxworth told it in amazing detail, Arthur evolved with the telling, and a glimmer inside him grew brighter and brighter.

I’ve seen wonderful theater in a social hall at the Del Mar racetrack and in the library of a middle school in Santee. I’ve come to anticipate capable results at Chula Vista’s OnStage Playhouse. Their Diary of Anne Frank, however, went way beyond expectations.

A wall on the lobby had handwriting in different colored ink. Seen up close, each was a letter to Anne Frank. People wrote them after seeing the show. If you read a few going in, the bursts of praise and compassion prepared you in a unique way for what was to come.

The stage was the cramped upper floor — the “Secret Annex” — at 263 Prinsengracht in Amsterdam, where eight people hid out from the Nazis for almost two years. Director Kym Pappas treated it throughout as real, and the audience as floating passers-by. Until the actors exited, in a medieval Dance of Death, they never left the stage. Once they did, there was no curtain call. They were gone. And when audiences exited, many grabbed a pen and added to the multicolored outpourings on the wall.

The production boasted an outstanding performance by Lucia Vecchio as young Anne and dedicated ensemble work. But what lingers is the unseen hand of the director. Never once did Pappas announce that she was behind the project. And yet her imagination was everywhere. They should give her a building!

Actors are taught to stay in the present — with the text and onstage. If you anticipate (to set up a joke or a dramatic “actor’s moment”), you are no longer now; look back on what you’ve done, same deal.

Playwrights must write the same way: move truthfully from moment to moment, speech to speech. Few playwrights do this as well as Tennessee Williams. And scene seven in The Glass Menagerie is as good as he gets. Finally alone, the Gentleman Caller talks with, tries to prop up, and seems to court shy Laura Wingfield. Their conversation deftly runs from unthinkable possibilities to a final, emotional last straw.

In Cygnet Theatre’s Menagerie, Brian Mackey and Amanda Sitton breathed such life into the scene, were so fully in the present, they made the famous outcome seem in doubt. I can think of no higher praise.

Most memorable musicals: along with Jesus Christ Superstar, at La Jolla Playhouse, two others remain in the mind for their daring. Cygnet Theatre staged Cabaret with a female Emcee. People expecting an imitation of the iconic Joel Gray performance must have been let down, for a while. But Craig Noel Award winner Karson St. John, with insomniac’s eyes and murder in her heart, stalked the stage and slowly claimed the role as her own.

It took Linda Libby about five seconds to become Mama Rose in Ion Theatre’s Gypsy. One reason: Ion staged the musical in its intimate space, a daring choice that brought out the backstage nature of the piece and the songs. Libby made her first entrance from behind the audience with a voice like a squawky foghorn. She took charge and held it all evening long.

San Diego had quite a year for musicals, among them: the Rep’s Tommy, Cygnet’s Cabaret and Little Shop of Horrors (highlighted by Melissa Fernandes’s wonderful Audrey), Jane Austen’s Emma at the Old Globe, A Chorus Line at San Diego Musical Theatre, Man of La Mancha at the Welk (stellar performance by John Lalond as the errant Don Quixote), Hairspray at Moonlight. And two Spring Awakenings: at San Diego Actors Conservatory Theatre and the American Rose Theatre. Having to single out one is near impossible.

My favorite design work for 2011? An unfair call: the San Diego Botanic Garden is one of the Seven Wonders of San Diego County. The La Jolla Playhouse “staged” David Leddy’s Susurrus as a walking tour of the garden: vegetation from all over the world, waterfalls, soft ocean breezes (a “susurrus” is wind whistling through trees), and a story that unfolded like different versions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in this pastoral setting.

The behind-the-scenes news of 2011: Louis Spisto stepped down as CEO of the Old Globe Theatre. As a fundraiser, Spisto had few peers. The Globe’s physical plant was much improved during his tenure.

As a selector of plays, Spisto favored safe, pretested, almost wholly commercial fare (August: Osage County being a huge exception). And world-premiere musicals were another matter. They arrived here hype-first: just one small step from Broadway. But most were, at best, about half-thought-out — Whisper House, First Wives’ Club, the recent Some Lovers (with a Burt Bacharach score but no book) — and left in no better shape. Some suffered drastic changes during rehearsals: Rocky Horror and Whisper House lost key personnel, including the original directors.

The Old Globe Theatre needs an artistic director, not a CEO, making artistic decisions. And it needs to be purged of the Broadway-bound fever that has infected it for years and brought in so many half-baked projects. We are here. We are not a stepping stone. Speak to us.

Years ago, when the fever first appeared, Craig Noel, the father of San Diego theater, was puzzled by all the talk of this or that show headed for Broadway and names in lights. Forget all that, I heard him say. “Just do good work.” ■

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Comments

JosephVann Jan. 7, 2012 @ 2:12 p.m.

And why did Mr. Smith never have the courage to speak his piece about the Globe's leadership before so much damage was done? Mr. Spisto's lack of qualifications for making artistic decisions (both short term, and - more disastrously - long term) was certainly no secret in the SD theatre community; it was openly discussed on many occasions. Nor was Mr. Noel's dismay at the theatre's artistic aimlessness unknown to a wide circle that included not only close friends but many professional colleagues who did not know him personally as well. Mr. Smith, you might have done your community an important service by raising these topics for serious discussion in your pages. Why did you fail to do so? What, or whom, were you scared of?

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