I’m closing out 2011 having seen 55 theatrical productions, traveled at least 7,000 miles, completed a masters degree, moved back to the East Coast, and with a multitude of additional memories to associate with the year. For this entry I’ll focus on those theatrical memories.
I made a top 10 list for the year several weeks ago, expecting that it might be modified before December 31 arrived. As it turned out, that list has remained mostly the same. I also compiled an accompanying Bottom 5 list, but decided not to share that publicly. However, making a list like that reminds me of one of my most interesting theatrical discussions of the year – whether someone receives feedback or not on a performance, and how that process is approached. Perhaps that’s a topic for a future entry.
Ultimately I decided that this would be a “top 11” list, in chronological order, highlighting the standout productions I saw in 2011 across the country. Without further ado…
Sonia Flew at the Jewish Ensemble Theatre in Bloomfield, Michigan – January
While this show actually opened and ran in 2010, I didn’t see it until its final performance on January 2, 2011, and thus will count it in the tally for this year. A powerful story about cross-generational family ties lingers in my mind alongside a historical issue I’d not been familiar with. I felt that the culmination energy of the closing performance added to the intensity and meaning of my seeing the show, alongside the pleasure of cheering on a friend featured in the cast and meeting the other cast members through him.
Clybourne Park at the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco, California – January
A breath of fresh air for the normally quite static ACT, this show burst out of left field to become a New Year’s hit. I was captivated by the topicality and breexiness of the script, which knowingly looked at hot-button racial issues without taking itself too seriously. On a related level, the actors and director all worked in a seemingly relaxed manner, letting down some of the artifice or distance between them and the audience to create a lasting theatrical impression.
Cyrano at the Sonoma County Repertory Theater in Sebastopol, California – February
The final production at “The Rep”, which closed its doors immediately following this show’s run, was elegiac with integrity. I’m sure that my knowledge of the theatre’s real life situation added to my impressions of the drama. At the same time, I recall a certain timeless quality to the production, as if the characters were stepping out of time to give us a moment of their time, and then proceeding to move on to another world, dimension or era.
Born and Raised at the Berkeley Playhouse in Berkeley, California – May
This new work took a look at another hot-button issue (gay marriage) and humanized the experience. Prolific Bay Area director Jon Tracy helmed a locally rooted story about marriage equality, and added creative touches in musical numbers and a balanced, large cast to make the narrative involving and emotionally satisfying. The spirit of new plays, where anything can happen and story elements are in flux, was visible in the creative process and risk taking demonstrated by the cast.
Tiny Alice at Marin Theatre Company in Mill Valley, California – June
In writing up this show, I referred to it as an “elaborate jigsaw puzzle” and while that impression still stands, six months later (now) I recall the heightened artistry of this production: the best use of MTC’s stage that I had ever seen, with the set opening on itself twice, the exaggerated yet sharp characterizations – especially Mark Anderson Phillips as the Butler, and the utter dedication of the five person cast. Director Jasson Minnidakis had clearly wanted to work on this play for a long while, and I hope he looks back on it with a sense of fulfillment.
Let Me Down Easy at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre in Berkeley, California – June
Renowned actress and storyteller Anna Deavere Smith returned to the Bay Area to tell this story as part of a national tour. Despite (or no matter of) these wide ranging roots, the show had an urgency and topicality that would put it at the top of my top 10 list – if I chose to organize this list that way. Smith made me forget all about her as she embodied a series of subjects/interviewees and recounted their experiences with health care. A show like this ought to have been mandatory viewing when the universal health care question engulfed the USA.
Care of Trees at the Shotgun Players in Berkeley, California – June
A striking, haunting story was given additional depth by director Susannah Martin and the talented two-hander team of Patrick Russell and Liz Sklar. Themes of supernaturalism and unpredictability ran through the piece, but (more strikingly) ran right alongside emotional realism, seen in Russell’s increasingly urgent, vibrant portrayal of the male lead and a series of videos and audio clips that furthered the character’s relationships – and audience understanding.
The Verona Project at the California Shakespeare Theatre in Orinda, California – July
Another breath of fresh air in the height of the summer, mixed now (in hindsight) with the Culmination/Crescendo of my Bay Area life that came to a close 10 days after seeing this show. The creators took a novel concept – turning the words of the Bard into a rock musical – and added unexpected humanity and honesty to the tale. An equal accomplishment was creating several tuneful, memorable songs that I wish were available on a soundtrack album!
Goodnight Desdemona, Good Morning, Juliet at The Penny Seats in Ann Arbor, Michigan – August
Buoyant creativity and gleeful mirth sailed through this premiere production from The Penny Seats. This was another example of outside knowledge (being in attendance on Opening Night of the troupe’s Premiere Production) played in to my audience experience. That awareness was matched by a crackerjack acting and production team game for anything – even a rainstorm on the second night that did NOT deter the performance – and a tongue in cheek script mixing notable drama and cheerful irreverence in such a way that allowed The Penny Seats to make a memorable debut.
Little Foxes at the University of Delaware Resident Ensemble Players in Newark, Delaware – October
I’ll dare to say this show was a Revelatory debut experience for the UD/PTTP troupe. I went in expecting to be like “wow” at the end of the show, and I left feeling like “WOAH.” This production was the most skillfully dramatic of the year, as I recall feeling a mix of intensity and gleefulness from getting so involved in the dramatic storyline. The production team also pulled off the coup of making an older storyline seem fresh, which is not always successful. The production notes seemed to imply that the title had been a last-minute choice for production, but the professionalism and integrity of the product belied no evidence of any backstage debates.
A Little Night Music at the City Theater Company in Wilmington, Delaware – December
In a similar manner to the PTTP debut, this production was impressive and deceptively simple. I recall my mom’s comment following the show: “I would have easily driven to Philadelphia for a show like that” and know that I agree with her, where the skillful cast approached Sondheim’s story and score with focus and determination. Several performances from younger professionals showed much promise for future roles, while the veteran performers took a nuanced approach to their work and seemed to intuitively know why they were there and how they’d best fit into the tapestry of the story.
On a slightly melancholic note, I could not have anticipated how departing the Bay Area would result in such a steep drop in my theatregoing: 45 shows up until the end of July (leaving the Bay Area), and only 10 shows during the rest of the year. I sincerely hope that the new year will bring the return of more consistency to my theatre-going, now based in the Mid Atlantic Region… and an accompanying production gig would be the icing on the cake.
A note of accomplishment: I’m very grateful to have maintained this blog as a theatrical chronicle for this year, and know that I want to continue, and possibly enhance, this process in the future. It’s clear to me that keeping a record of all the shows has helped solidify and enhance my theatre studies and pursuits, changing the memory from “oh, what was that show?” to “YES, THAT WAS A MEMORABLE SHOW IN A MEMORABLE YEAR!“