La Moana's 1918 arrived at Fringe Festival with no fanfare and blew audiences to bits.
  • La Moana's 1918 arrived at Fringe Festival with no fanfare and blew audiences to bits.
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For San Diego Theater in 2016, I wish everyone could have seen the following:

1918 at the Fringe Festival. La Moana, a dance troupe from New Zealand, arrived with no fanfare and blew audiences to bits. 1918 recalled the flu pandemic that hit the Samoan Islands with no warning.

Dancers began the show, moving with feather-light joy as they lived daily routines on the islands. Suddenly fevers and strange chills sprouted, and the dead began to pile up. Along with watching an unthinkable tragedy, members of the audience sensed another palpable loss: would the dancers’ vitality cease as well? Not so. In the end, they returned all in blue and doubled their intensity with ferocious elation.

I wish everyone could have seen Melissa Fernandes in Ion’s Sunday in the Park with George. She played Dot, Georges Seurat’s mistress and model in Act One, and Marie, Dot’s now ancient daughter in 1984. Throughout, Fernandes had the kind of aura you see when a performer’s in a dream role.

She also understudied for Cygnet’s Gypsy and filled in as Mama Rose. I saw her late in the run. She was wonderful again. I also saw two other things. One: how shows can grow. Cygnet’s opening night was fine but now had exceptional polish. Once again I wished that critics could skip opening nights, which can be so hit-and-miss. They’d go, say, two weeks into the run, when the show has settled in, for good or ill. They’d have a clearer sense of its quality.

I know, I know, box office trumps quality. (Zounds! I swore I’d never use the invidious T-word again!)

Second, I got to re-see Allison Spratt Pearce turn young Rose, the bland ugly duckling, into brash, stylish Gypsy Rose Lee, headliner on the Burlesque circuit. An extraordinary transformation!

Cashae Monya led a terrific ensemble (directed by Jennifer Eve Thorn) as Alphonsine in Moxie’s Our Lady of Kibeho. Amid civil strife in Rwanda, the young novice has a miraculous vision of “the Mother of the Word” and pays for it with continual torment. Monya snapped into instant ecstasies and played Alphonsine with undeniable belief.

Way Downriver turned William Faulkner’s novella, “Old Man,” inside out. In the original, women terrify the convict so much he prefers the meanest penitentiary in America. Richard Baird was outstanding as a semi-skilled man trapped on a raft during the great Mississippi flood of 1927. With voice, gesture, and profound commitment, Baird re-created the deluge on the North Coast Rep stage.

I wish you could have seen Francis Gercke’s spare, deeply moving John Merrick in Backyard Renaissance’s The Elephant Man. Unlike other versions of the role, Gercke never once played for sympathy. Instead he went way inside the deformed Victorian and invited us in.

Also Ro Boddie’s efforts for Cygnet’s Stupid Fking Bird, Seven Guitars, and King Hedley II. He carried Bird on his back and showed versatility as the tragic Floyd “Schoolboy” Barton in Guitars and Mister in Hedley.

And I wish you could have seen Intrepid’s splendid Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Robert and Deborah Gilmour Smyth, real-life husband and wife, reversed the standard emphasis on Edward Albee’s George and Martha. Most productions give Martha a star turn with free reign to slosh and blabber. But a closer reading of the text shows that George, like a standoffish master of ceremonies, is in charge. And through his patient, tough-love efforts he crafts a sense of order from Walpurgis Night chaos.

Another tandem: Jorge Rodriguez and Jennifer Paredes caught in a maelstrom of civil war and miracles in InnerMissions’ Seven Spots on the Sun. With a kind of broken strength, Rodriguez played a village doctor who suffered so much he swore off medicine. Paredes — tops in Ion’s Lydia and the Rep’s hilarious Manifest Destinitus — played the mother of a cursed child whose only hope was the former M.D. and would not take no for an answer.

I hope people got to see Ion’s The Normal Heart. Led by Claudio Raygoza’s excellent Ned Weeks, part crusader, part obnoxious jerk, and strong support from Kim Strassberger, Daren Scott, and Alexander Guzman, Heart was the daring, urgent, up-to-the-second theater San Diego sees too little of. As was the San Diego Rep’s Disgraced, with a scalpel-like dissection of our times.

The ensemble work for Disgraced was excellent. But don’t forget the Rep’s Manifest Destinitus, Cygnet’s repertory company for two August Wilson plays, Moxie’s Our Lady of Kibeho (especially the teenaged girls’ remarkable portrayals), and La Jolla Playhouse’s Junk: The Golden Age of Debt, where a huge cast performed Ayad Akhtar’s world premiere with such precision you’d think they were reviving a familiar classic.

I wish you could have seen them all.

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