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!


The Comedy of Errors: Los Angeles Theatre Ensemble, 9/4/11

9 09 2011

The Comedy of Errors: Review for Stage & Cinema

Gospel According to First Squad: Los Angeles Theatre Ensemble, 8/4/11

8 08 2011

Sometimes, theater criticism becomes a chore. On several of our recent theater dates, Tony Frankel and I have lamented that writing a review of a mediocre show seems hardly worth our (unpaid) time and effort. Do our reviews matter? Who is reading? Does our writing disappear into the blogosphere as soon as it is posted, or does it contribute to an ongoing dialogue and critical conversation as we hope?

Then something comes along like Gospel According to First Squad, currently running at Santa Monica’s Powerhouse Theatre. I was not assigned to review this show; I simply attended with an Ovation Voter friend on Thursday evening. But I felt compelled to write about it afterwards. Shows like Gospel According to First Squad remind me why I started reviewing LA theater in the first place. Some shows demand to be seen and demand to be discussed. Even if no one else reads my review, writing becomes a necessary process of sorting through my own thoughts on a provocative new play. Several days later, I am still processing Los Angeles Theatre Ensemble’s gripping production of Gospel According to First Squad.

Over the past five years, LATE has crafted three plays with artistic director / playwright Tom Burmester concerning the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The third of The War Cycle trilogy, Gospel According to First Squad follows a unit based at Command Outpost Michigan at the mouth of Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley. The action is framed in flashbacks as each American soldier is interviewed on a deadly clash that erupts just before the squad’s redeployment to the US. The precise details of this clash remain ambiguous – and for good reason. This is a play questioning the existence of Absolute Truth.

The violence of this war is not simply physical; Gospel According to First Squad is more broadly interested in the violence of ideology. With dynamic direction by Burmester and Danika Sudik, the racism and sexism generated by military life shocks even as it (sometimes disturbingly) entertains throughout the play. The ensemble feeds off one another with a fierce herd mentality – for instance encouraging the innocent Michael Hanson as PFC Wright to get over his unfaithful wife with a deep and righteous chant, “Fuck that bitch!” AJ Meijer’s gentle and sympathetic Muhammad, the squad’s Afghani translator, endures excruciating verbal and physical denigration; he suffers for an unfortunate American stereotype of “his people” and the extremist faction of his Muslim faith.

Indeed, religion is the point of the most contentious ideological violence in Gospel. Absolute Truth hinders one from accepting others diverse experiences and beliefs – and fierce defense of one Way over another often explodes in physical violence. Sgt. Taylor’s tight-knit squad begins to fracture when a self-righteous evangelical Christian named Gabriel (the precise and pointed Trevor Algatt) joins, armed with Pashto-language Bibles to distribute to the Afghanis. Is this war a modern-day religious crusade? What differentiates Gabriel’s mission from that of a Muslim jihadist? In many ways, Gospel is a perfect companion piece to The Word Begins, which just closed at Rogue Machine. Both pose the challenging question: How has “God” become a force of fragmentation and violence, rather than one of unification and unconditional love?

Muhammad’s role as an interpreter brings force to human acts of translation and interpretation in religion; he represents a refreshing diversity of Muslim faith and experience, beyond the violent extremist perspectives that dominate media representation. Disappointingly, the multiple Christian characters are not as well rounded as this single Muslim figure in Gospel; by the end, all the play’s Christian characters seem to represent the same right-wing faction. This is not my Christianity, nor is it that of many of my friends.

Still, Gospel According to First Squad compellingly seeks for some sort of ethical, humanist Truth to guide our actions. This moral compass weighs forcefully on our common humanity and our living bodies, poised precariously on the edge of death. However stern in public, a nagging conscious comes to bear on a bent and broken Sgt. Taylor in his private moments. As he cradles a uniformed teddy bear that once belonged to his daughter, Jonathan Redding brings brilliant emotional force to the cracks beneath the veneer of self-righteous American military authority.

Perhaps the greatest testament to Los Angeles Theater Ensemble is that Gospel According to First Squad paves the way for a consideration of the political issues at stake, more than the elements of the theatrical performance itself. Burmester’s script feels a little stylistically disjunct from Act I to Act II, but the roaring ideological debates, crisp direction, and stellar ensemble performances are continually compelling. One of the most challenging and important new works currently running in Los Angeles, Gospel According to First Squad is worth the time – and even more worth the post-show thought and discussion.