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!

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D is for Dog: Rogue Artists Ensemble, 7/10/11

15 07 2011

Peppy, tuneful music instantly sets the stage for a family-friendly 1950s sitcom. Introducing the Rogers family: live from their shiny formica kitchen! Mr. Rogers works at the Conservation Corporation while his dutiful wife cooks, cleans, and home-schools their adorable children Dick and Jane. They’re the perfect, loving nuclear family. But “nuclear” might be a more sinister and apt descriptor than the Rogers could ever imagine.

In Rogue Artists Ensemble’s D is for Dog, a campy and nostalgic setup gradually gives way to a sci-fi thriller that upends the Rogers’ – and the audience’s – notions of reality. Playwright Katie Polebaum crafts a carefully-plotted narrative that may seem playfully cliche at the start – but ultimately pays off, as the Rogers 1950s suburban utopia is subtly and slowly displaced. Why do Mrs. Rogers and the children never leave the house? What are these strange, colored pills that cure all the family’s ills? Why have the children never heard of man’s best friend, the dog — or any other animals, for that matter? By the time Mr. Rogers whips out an iPad, there is clearly a glitch in the matrix.

One of Los Angeles theater’s greatest strengths is its collaborative pulse, and Rogue Artists Ensemble reaches a new collective peak in this multidisciplinary work. Sean Cawelti directs a well-paced dark comedy that thrives on the actors’ layered performances. Mrs. Rogers (the exceptional Nina Silver) flits from chore to chore, but a nervous twitch calls into question that perfect smile. Michael Scott Allen and Taylor Coffman revert to utterly convincing childlike mischief and wonder as Dick and Jane. Meanwhile, Mr. Rogers (Guy Birtwhistle) visibly bears the burden of the corporation’s secrets.

As mysteries begin to unravel, Rogue Artists intertwine multiple modes of storytelling – from crisp video design (Sean T. Cawelti, Muhammad Saleh, and Matthew G. Hill) to unforgettable puppets (deftly manned by Heidi Hilliker and Benjamin Messmer) to drive the plot to its unexpected conclusion. Every element of D is for Dog is of the same world: no small feat, especially when that world keeps shifting identities, with one “reality” giving way to another. John Nobori and Ben Phelps’ smart underscoring is of particular note in unifying this strange and wondrous play.

D is for Dog‘s post-apocalyptic take on the 1950s sitcom rings eerily relevant in Hollywood, where the line between fiction and reality is blurred. A nice coat of film fiction can conceal a world of concerns. How refreshing to see these myths start to peel in a black box theater tucked away on Western Avenue: a reminder of what an imaginative, thought-provoking theater town LA can be.

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Lately, I have taken to calling my life “imaginary.” My life certainly has a nice and glowing veneer: researching and writing for my PhD, composing and music directing, theatergoing with friends. I saw D is for Dog during an action-packed theater day with fellow critic Tony Frankel, whose review is published in Stage & Cinema. As Tony knows all too well, the “imaginary life” of a theater critic is grand – but there is legitimate, time-consuming work to this unpaid gig, too. This review marks my 100th blog post. Thank you to all who take the time to read what I take the time to write, and please keep up the conversation!