The year in review: 2014 was the Year of the Lamb. Even in hindsight, it’s hard to imagine all that Lamb’s Players Theatre achieved. Along with running well-crafted shows in two spaces — their Coronado home and the Hahn downtown — Lamb’s staged an unforgettable Les Miserables and broke a Guinness Book record.
Les Miz could still be packing them in if the cast didn’t have other commitments. Director Robert Smyth gave the sprawling epic a clean, minimalist approach. In the original, the characters come at you as oversized legends: Jauvert is obsession; Jean Valjean is a saint in the making; Eponine’s the epitome of Rejection. Lamb’s made them people first, with fragile interiors and brittle hopes. The staging, music, 20-member ensemble, and designs combined for one of the city’s all-time best musical productions (further proof: most of the critics saw it more than once). And all involved were local.
Earlier in the year, Lamb’s broke the Guinness record for longest-running continuous performance. A group in India held it by reading the Bible for 72 hours straight. Lamb’s read full plays and sang musicals for 76 hours and 18 minutes, with only a five-minute break in between. Then, though sleep-deprived and bumping into each other and knocking down music stands, they did 24 more unofficial hours. The grand total: 100 hours, 42 minutes.
Some outsiders thought it was just a goofy stunt. Anyone who saw the core group toward the end knew better: it was an ordeal, an insane marathon made more so by strict rules and officious Guinness judges — i.e., one second more than a five-minute break and game over; less than 20 people in the audience at all times, same deal. One also saw an amazing spirit glinting through bleary eyes and strip-mined emotions. I suspect that spirit carried over into Les Miz.
Last month, SDSU did a Les Miz that out epic’d the epic. Director Paula Kalustian and musical director/conductor Robert Meffe put over 200 singers, musicians, and performers on the Don Powell stage and all but blasted down the barricades. How they coordinated the event boggles the brain. The result was a soundscape and a grandeur like few ever in San Diego theater.
On tour: Touring shows can be such a grab-bag. 2014 had two that were special: Broadway/San Diego’s The Book of Mormon (a neophyte missionary founds a new religion in Uganda) lived up to some of the biggest pre-show hype in memory; the Rep hosted The Pianist of Willesden Lane, Mona Golabek’s intimate account of her mother’s life as a Jewish teenager in England during World War II. Golabek told the tale simply and movingly and played a shiny black Steinway like a god.
Fringe benefits: this year’s second annual Fringe Festival was at least twice as large and twice the success. The Fringe now has its feet on the ground and looks to become an important San Diego fixture. The festival is also part of a local trend: theater “Without Walls,” to use the La Jolla Playhouse’s phrase. We’ve seen more site-specific work — plays staged outside of theaters — than ever before. Among other benefits, audiences become more immersed and active in these events, and San Diego is finally catching up with the rest of the world, which has been “wall-less” for decades.
One of my favorite productions of 2014, the San Diego Rep/La Jolla Playhouse’s El Henry, was site-specific. The “set,” cracked pavement, battered and graffiti’d walls, and chain-link fences, was an industrial lot in the East Village, where cars made cameos. It was perfect for Herbert Sequenza’s contemporary, homegrown remake of Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part One.
Welcome aboard: two new companies, with very different aims, promise to expand our theatrical menu: Richard Baird’s New Fortune Theatre Company opened with a blazing Henry V, and somehow managed to stage the Battle of Agincourt in Ion Theatre’s intimate BLKBX space. Baird excelled as the grown-up Prince Hal, and the ensemble work was tops. New Fortune will stage “original classics.” Immediate future projects: adaptations of Oscar Wilde’s The Portrait of Dorian Gray and Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights.
The only glaring problem with The Trip, Tom Dugdale and Josuha Brody’s relatively new group: finding a space to produce in for more than a long weekend. The Trip does internally what site-specific shows do externally. They relocate the traditional in unfamiliar settings and frames. In their most recent work, Orpheus and Eurydice are a contemporary pair made famous for their long-distance courtship on the internet. Just folks, who then live the tragic story. This brave, inventive company merits much larger audiences.
If I had a hammer: 2014 marked the return, after many years, of Scott Feldser’s Sledgehammer Theatre. Near-legendary for bombarding scripts and audiences, Sledge’s Happy Days was the opposite: a minutely faithful rendering of the Samuel Beckett classic. Instead of manic externals — blinding floodlights, ear-splitting skrieks — the production drew precise and telling nuances from the text. It also featured one of the year’s most astonishing performances: Dana Hooley as Beckett’s flickering beacon of hope — though neck-deep in a dirt mound — Winnie.
Could we start again, please? Theater’s like a Doppler effect: it comes at you, blazes past before you know it, then it’s gone for all time. Some work I reviewed I wish I could re-view.
Intrepid Shakespeare’s I Hate Hamlet — a title I can’t hate enough! — boasted Ruff Yeager’s extraordinary John Barrymore. Actually, his ghost, who can’t decide if he’s “dead or just incredibly drunk.” In either event, he’s a colossus. So was Yeager, whose silver-screen-sized Barrymore turned Paul Rudnick’s daffy script into an unforgettable evening.
At New Village Arts, Samantha Ginn played Carnelle Scott with truckloads of “gumption” in Beth Henley’s The Miss Firecracker Contest. Carnelle didn’t just wear her heart on her sleeve. As performed by Ginn, it exuded from every pore! (New Village also mounted a splendid version of Sarah Ruhl’s The Clean House, the tight ensemble cast brilliantly directed by Claudio Raygoza.)
Veterans Linda Libby and Tom Stephenson added to their accolades with deeply internal performances: Libby as a woman suffering dementia in Milvotchkee, Visconsin at Mo`olelo; Stephenson as guilt-clogged Joe Keller in Intrepid Shakespeare’s All My Sons (and how about a Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, with Libby as Martha and Stephenson as George?).
One of the year’s best is also one of its best stories. Cashae Monya was originally cast as one of the daughters in Lynn Nottage’s Crumbs from the Table of Joy. Moxie director Delicia Turner Sonnenberg thought she was ten years too young for Lily, the feisty lead. At an audition, when a candidate for Lily couldn’t make it, Monya read the part “brilliantly.” She got the role and was terrific. The moral of the story, says Turner Sonnenberg: “Don’t be late for an audition.”
On further re-view: It will be impossible to forget Alexander Dodge’s set for The Hunchback of Notre Dame at the La Jolla Playhouse, especially when those monstrous medieval bells dropped down from the rafters, or Howell Brinkley’s excellent lighting. I also won’t forget what that limp, hearts and flowers, Disney-ized book has done to Victor Hugo’s far richer, funnier, more complex, much edgier novel.
Let there be a re-review: San Diegans all across the county go for staged readings. Along with sheer love of the spoken word, an obvious reason: they cost less than a theater ticket. Another: the scripts are often too expensive or have too large a cast to mount locally. Ion Theatre’s recent reading of Marsha Norman’s ’night, Mother will be an exception. Sylvia M’Lafi Thompson and Yolanda Franklin read the play, about Jessie Cates’s last night on earth, with such conviction, Ion’s doing a full production beginning January 10. Ya know, Virginia, sometimes there just might be a Santa Claus!