A Year in Theater: 2011

20 12 2011

2011 has been a whirlwind theatrical year. Last winter, I music directed two incredibly rewarding ensemble shows: Brecht and Weill’s Happy End (with director Hunter Bird) and The Civilians’ Gone Missing (with director Lane Williamson). My family musical Thank You, Mr. Falker (with book and lyrics by Andrew Bentz) premiered at the Morgan-Wixson Theatre in May. I traveled across the US to see and review and dramaturg shows this summer and fall. I was particularly drawn to experimental literary adaptations this year, straying from the mainstream venues and musicals that dominated last year’s list.

I always see more theater than I have the time to review, but here are my top 10 shows of 2011 – from LA to Chicago to NYC, from gritty black box theaters to Broadway stages.

10. The Comedy of Errors (Los Angeles Theatre Ensemble) – Review

Playing in the realm of contemporary pop culture, this free summer Shakespeare production had the audience roaring with laughter from start to finish. It’s perhaps no surprise that I saw The Comedy of Errors twice.

9. God of Carnage (Ahmanson Theater)

Yasmina Reza’s play snaps from a sophisticated realist dramedy to a brilliant physical satire of “modern” man. With a star studded cast direct from Broadway, God of Carnage was an unexpectedly explosive favorite this year. (While the stage show has more fireworks, Roman Polanski’s film Carnage offers powerhouse performances and clever drunken camera work.)

8. D is for Dog (Rogue Artists Ensemble) – Review

The collaborative artistry behind D is for Dog was astounding – from the story to the music, from the set to the puppetry. I was enthralled by every twist and turn in Rogue Artists Ensemble’s smart sci-fi thriller.

7. Hugh Jackman, Back on Broadway (Broadhurst Theater)

This unbelievably charismatic man lives up to the hype. Whether you’re seated on the first row of the orchestra or the back of the mezzanine (like me), Hugh invites you into his musical world with silly stories and flirty banter, cool and confident moves, a powerhouse voice, and genuine smile. He leaps effortlessly from macho Billy Bigelow to flashy Peter Allen, and I adore him for it.

6. Jerry Springer the Opera (Chance Theater) – Review

Kudos to the Chance Theater for conquering such a morally and musically challenging opera. Jerry Springer the Opera has yet to receive (and may never receive) a full production at a mainstream venue in the United States, but the Chance continually impresses with exciting productions of innovative work.

5. David Greenspan’s Poetics and Plays (Getty Villa)

David Greenspan’s performative lecture of Aristotle’s Poetics and Gertrude Stein’s Plays enacts the imbrication of performance in academics and academics in performance. I was dorkily enthralled. Charles McNulty may have preferred the classical Aristotle portion, but my theatergoing companion and I found Greenspan’s Stein to be uncanny.

4. The Last Act of Lilka Kadison (Lookingglass Theater) – Review

On my first trip to Chicago, I was inspired by the palpable art of listening across ensembles at Steppenwolf and Lookingglass. The Last Act of Lilka Kadison made theatrical magic of an utterly predictable story.

3. The Select (The Sun Also Rises) (Elevator Repair Service)

I have never been a fan of Hemingway’s macho prose – but with an ensemble of enthralling storytellers in a bar, corks popping and bottles flying, and a dash of music and dance, Hemingway was transmuted into a kind of camp. I was captivated. I’ll be back for Gatz this spring.

2. Septimus and Clarissa (Ripe Time) – Review

I was already a fan of Virginia Woolf’s soft, sensuous narrative voice that sweeps from one character to another, from interiority to exteriority. Ripe Time clarified and amplified Mrs. Dalloway for me, physicalizing Woolf’s words with such profound nuance and care.

1. Cyclops: A Rock Opera (Psittacus Productions) – Reviews and More

This raucous rock opera adaptation of Euripides’ satyr play consumed me – from Son of Semele to Pasadena Playhouse to the NY Musical Theatre Festival. I ended up occupying a strange and shifting position as a fan, critic, scholar, and dramaturg on the company’s road to NYMF. But most of all, I loved being a friend and advocate for such a smart and sexy new work.

Happy holidays, all. Looking forward to a very theatrical 2012! I’m kicking off the new year by dramaturging a new rock opera The Demise, previewing at The Roxy on January 19. And look for me music directing Act III Theater Ensemble’s Xanadu at UCLA in early March!


Trojan Women (After Euripides): SITI Company, 9/7/11

9 09 2011

The Trojan women are not hysterical. With the exception of Kassandra who is blessed (and cursed) with foresight, these women are not mad. The clean and classical lines of SITI Company’s Trojan Women (After Euripides) confer rationality, nobility, and wisdom on these prisoners of war. They are articulate and authoritative, grounded and assertive, as they navigate the implications of the fall of Troy. So on the few occasions when these women do wail at the loss of their home and all their closest relations, their agony resonates.

Although Euripides’ Trojan Women is often considered a play in which “nothing happens,” SITI Company’s current production at the Getty Villa – newly adapted by Jocelyn Clarke – packs a powerful political punch into the interlocking stories of the Queen of Troy Hecuba, her daughter Kassandra, her daughter-in-law Andromache, and Helen of Troy. After the Greek army’s invasion, each woman waits to be dragged away from the wracked city by her new master. The women share their woes in the aftermath of the violence: they dip into memories of the past and foresee the dismal future. Their densely-layered storyscape is enhanced by subtle shifts in lighting and sound, crafting a prismatic chronicle of war’s impact on civilian women and children. Christian Frederickson’s music is of particular note, juxtaposing the live and the prerecorded – the aching melodies of his violin against computerized rhythms – in a play of free will against fate.

The militaristic authority of men radically structures these women’s lives. Clarke incorporates the wordy and shrewd war hero Odysseus (Gian-Murray Gianino) into this adaptation; smug and self-assured, he commands the stage with his decisive words and deeds. Little does he know that he is fated to wander for ten years following the Trojan War – for indeed, a higher authority structures his existence. Poseidon’s prologue (commandingly delivered by Brent Werzner) and his physical omnipresence further complicates questions of fate and free will. This god’s expansive gestures guide characters’ speeches and actions, shake the earth and even topple towers.

Still, the Trojan women are far from helpless victims at the hands of men and the gods. Their powerful performative presence often exceeds the strictures of their lives. When Menelaus (J. Ed Araiza) arrives to claim his unfaithful wife, Helen (Katherine Crockett) presents a shockingly logical and convincing argument for her infidelity. A stunning six-foot-tall blonde, Crockett’s Helen physically commands the stage; she towers above her husband and calmly strides the room in a sexy sheer dress, revealing her long legs to enhance her arguments as needed. Unfortunately, Crockett’s vocal authority is less assured than Ellen Lauren’s masterful Hecuba, Queen of Troy. Hecuba’s argument for Helen’s death is both compellingly rational and emotional, a plea for revenge against the woman whose beauty started the war. Hecuba’s voice is worn with wisdom and asserts her queenly authority, although she has now been reduced to a slave.

Anne Bogart’s stunning minimalist direction is built on slow and meditated motion, creating stage images that feel like paintings on a piece of ancient pottery – tableaux that subtly shift across time. Broken diagonals and the angularity of toppled chairs are juxtaposed with sprawling circles, including the circularity of time itself. Kassandra (Akiko Aizawa) flits across the stage in roving circles at a heightened pace; her mad laughter echoes in the ghost chamber of the museum’s interior as time rushes on. Yet when a premonition grabs her, Kassandra is pinned to a spotlight center stage; her voice deepens and her stance widens with the heavy weight of foresight.

It is in this same spotlight that Hecuba both begins and ends the show: a wife who has lost her husband, a mother who has lost her sons, a queen now bound to be a slave. Her body convulses and collapses to the floor – but she refuses help as she slowly, consciously pushes herself up again. This repeated motion – swift collapse and slow, measured recovery –  is a gripping physicalization of the plight of the civilian in times of war, a plight which echoes into our present.

Indeed, many of the envoy’s speeches about militaristic necessity throughout SITI Company’s Trojan Women feel distinctly contemporary, perhaps ripped from the speeches of George W. Bush encouraging the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan. If we uncomfortably align the United States with the Greeks, fighting from a dubious and perhaps even God-mandated “necessity,” then who are the Trojan women whose villages we sack and whose children we kill? What does it mean for us to recognize their right to speak and to mourn? And how can we be a part of the recovery, instead of the collapse?