Ernest Kearney's Best of Los Angeles Theater 2015

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The best of 2015, huh?

Well, there was a lot of it.

So in no particular order here it comes:

The Odyssey Ensemble Theatre started off the “best list” of my year with their stunning staging of Eugene O’Neill’s ANNA CHRISTIE, produced by Beth Hogan and directed by Kim Rubinstein, with a superb set by Wilson Chin and a stellar cast in Mary Mara, Tait Ruppert, Kevin McKidd, and Jeff Perry who played the “father” to his daughter Zoe Perry in the title role.

Over all, I thought the Odyssey had a magnificent year, if we overlook a couple of rentals and “Oedipus Machina” (sorry Mr. Sossi).  Their association with the Evidence Room paid off once more with Bart DeLorenzo’s sharp and stylish staging of Pierre de Marivaux’s THE FALSE SERVANT, and while I found  playwright Dominique Morisseau’s “Sunset Baby” a solid but middling effort it did offer a standout performance by Nadége August in the lead.

Again, I was not wild about John Fazakerley’s “Corktown ‘57”, but his tale of an Irish American family torn asunder by “The Troubles” in the old country benefited from excellent acting by Andrew Connolly, Nick Tate and Josh Clark.

However one of the years most entertaining evenings was provided for me by Julia Migenes belting out Weill in her cabaret show JULIA MIGENES SINGS KURT WEILL, and while not my cup of tea the staging of Clifford Odets’ AWAKE AND SING directed by Elina de Santos with the incomparable Marilyn Fox showed a well practiced craftsmanship of the highest order.  

Now there are certain companies in LA who have my upmost support out of the respect I hold for their mission statements, and fortunately none of them floundered this season.

The Doma Theatre Company is the little engine that could, and “could” in a high kicking chorus line.   This powerhouse off Santa Monica Boulevard stages first rate productions of Broadway’s biggest musicals at affordable ticket prices, making these shows available to those of us who can’t or won’t shell out $125.00 for a seat, as well as allowing fresh actors and actresses the opportunity to hone their skills in this genre.  

Doma as well, I thought had a strong season, scoring big with their staging of JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR directed by co-founder Marco Gomez and their highly commendable AMERICAN IDIOT, with the truly remarkable Jess Ford in the lead.

With a standing box office policy of “pay what you want”, The Coeurage Theatre Company, is to be applauded by all for their dedication to audience building, something sadly ignored by the community as a whole.  Their mounting of Steven Fechter’s THE WOODSMAN was exemplary of both their consummate craftsmanship and their boldness in projects. 

Zombie Joe’s Underground is another company that works to expand the audiences for L.A. theatre.  With MADNESS!  MURDER! MAYHEM!”, Z.J.U. realized a splendidly staged homage to Grand Guignol meticulously directed by Jana Wimer and written by…eh, some hack whose name escapes me. 

The 24th Street Theatre, a company whose outreach strategy to their neighborhood should serve as a blueprint for any small theatre, offered WALKING THE TIGHTROPE one of the best plays of last year, this year or any year in an encore presentation at the Kirk Douglas Theatre.  Then they followed with Finegan Kruckemeyer’s heart touching parable MAN COVETS BIRD,” wonderfully staged by director Debbie Devine. 

The Echo Theatre Company gave us a remarkable performance by Leandro Cano in Miki Johnson’s “American Falls”, as well as “A SMALL FIRE one of the most memorable small plays of the season.  Written by Adam Bock and directed by Alana Dietze in her directorial debut it treated audiences to superb performances by Michael Mantell and Stephen O’Mahoney and allowed for Lily Knight to captivate all who saw her with one of the year’s finest performances.   Matt Richter in the same production aptly demonstrated the facility of a skillful light design to augment even the strongest of stagings.  

The Fountain Theatre, one of L.A.’s most esteemed companies, stumbled with the insipid “Twilight Zone rehash “I and You” by Lauren Gunderson, but quickly rebounded to their usual high standards with CITIZEN: AN AMERICAN LYRIC superbly directed by Shirley Jo Finney and adapted by Steven Sachs from Claudia Rankine’s poetry collection of the same title.  

The Fountain had long enjoyed a special relationship with playwright Athol Fugard, and so finished the year with THE PAINTED ROCKS AT REVOLVER CREEK, a poetic prayer for his suffering homeland.  The production featured a young actor named Phillip Solomon who I think great things may be expected of.

As it has for nearly two decades, the Fountain has also offered the monthly performances of the FOREVER FLAMENCO SERIES under the loving guidance of Deborah Lawlor.  I will tell anyone who has the good sense to listen to me, that this monthly “peña” of world renowned artists is undeniably one of the best tickets in LA

There are specific plays, fortunately few in number, which fall into the

category of “I’m right and you’re wrong”.   Basically these are works that shouldn’t be produced so much as taken out behind the barn and treated to the business end of a twelve gauge. 

For example one is Matthew Lopez’s “The Whipping Man”, a fraudulent work which achieved a dubious success by deluding woefully uninformed audiences.  (I know many of my fellow reviewers found merit in Lopez’s work – and they all fit nicely into my “I’m right and you’re wrong” file.) 

“Abigail/1702” by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa is another such play, one that portrays itself as a sequel to Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible”, but blithely manages to be an utter betrayal of the original.  The staging by Long Beach’s International City Theatre can not be faulted for any aspects of its mounting, other than its selection.  Happily, as they are one of my favorite venues, redemption came in their elegant staging of August Wilson’s FENCES with Michael A. Sheppard in the lead achieving another of the year’s finest performances.

One of the strongest roster of acting talents in the city is that of The Antaeus Theatre Company, a fact displayed in two solidly crafted mountings; HENRY IV, PART I” directed by Michael Murray with Gregory Itzin as Falstaff, and William Inge’s PICNIC with the exceptional performances of Gigi Bermingham, Eve Gordon and John DeMita.

LGBT Center, producer Jon Imparato and director Mark Bringelson realized a luminous staging of Mike Kindle’s STANLEY ANN: THE UNLIKELY STORY OF BARACK OBAMA’S MOTHER showcasing the  talented Ann Noble in another of the year’s best performances.  

Robert Selander’s scenic design, Christopher Moscartiello’s sound score and, again, Matt Richter’s light design contributed in no small part to the show’s success.

As a long time student of Los Angeles history, I was pleased by a pair of productions, both of merit, which drew from that source: 

The story of John Dolphin’s battle against the racism of Chief Parker’s LAPD is at the center of RECORDED IN HOLLYWOOD: THE MUSICAL. The show, which does have a fascinating tale for the telling, was well served by the talents of composer and lyricist Andy Cooper.

Playwright and director Tom Lazarus looked to the architectural history of L.A. for THE PRINCES OF KINGS ROAD, his skillfully staged effort aided by the strong ensemble work of John Nielsen, Raymond Xifo and Heather Robinson.

Wendy Graf ‘s emotionally truthful ALL AMERICAN GIRL is taken from more recent events.   With adept direction by Anita Khanzadiana and a stellar performance from Jeanne Syquia, this exploration of the roots and reasons behind domestic terrorism is thoughtful and political and the fusing of both into a successful show is no small accomplishment.

Wendy Macleod’s HOUSE OF YES celebrated its 25th anniversary with a first rate staging produced by Margie Mintz.  Directed by Lee Sankowich and aided by Adam Haas Hunter’s excellent set, Rebecca Raines’ lighting design and Norman Kern’s sound work, the stage over flowed with impeccable work by Eileen T’Kaye, Nicholas McDonald, Kate Maher, Colin McGurk and Jeanne Syquia.

John Posey’s exceptionally well crafted and touching solo show at the Whitefire Theatre FATHER, SON AND HOLY COACH managed to move me while reminding me never to judge a book, or a show, by its cover.

And the audiences at Greenway Court Theatre were dazzled by BREATHING ROOM with Eileen T’Kaye and Charles Reese in Mary Lou Newmark’s disarmingly beautiful musical parable.

THE HOLLYWOOD FRINGE arrived in June, and I tore into it, gorging myself, like a junkyard dog tossed a chunk of red meat, on 63 shows and was humbled by the intensity and breadth of the creative energy which is the nucleus of this city.  

When all was said and done here was the medal count:

16 PLATINUM MEDALS

17 GOLD MEDALS

8 SILVER MEDALS

18 BRONZE MEDALS

4 EAR WAX MEDALS

And my picks were:

BEST OF THE FRINGE

BLOOD: A VOODOO LOVE STORY

Michael Phillip Edwards’ twisted, viciously funny, marginally pornographic morality tale with tour-de-force performances by Phrederic Semaj and Maria Tomas.

Honorable Mention: 

“U AND ME AND MY BEST FRIEND P”

A one woman show by Abby Schachner a tornado of neuroses and talent.

BEST COMEDY:

T"HREE MUSKATEERERSCLOWNS WITH SWORDS"

Mauricio Gomez, Jeff Heapy, Alec Tomkiw and Cassandra Gonzalez absolutely inspired swashbuckling silliness.  

BEST MUSICAL

HOUSE OF RABBITSCHARIVARI VOYEUR-VILLE

Developed by Brandon Baruch and directed by Baruch and Kyle Johnston which they described as: “Hardcore-Vaudeville/Art-Rock.”

Honorable Mention: 

ANNABELLA

By Sam Johnides and Tony Gonzalez who have the promise of the spectacular about them.   

Keri Safran’s “STUPID SONGS!”, with Sarah Wolter, Laura Michelle, Sara Cravens Hughes, Gabriel Oliva and eleven other professional singers belting out such toe tapping ditties as “My Neighbor” about the pesky problem of living next door to a serial killer, and a romantic little tune about a girl who believes her boyfriend may be seeing another girl entitled, “Smell Yo Dick.” 

BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTOR

DARIN DAHMS in “THE PLAYER KING

Dahms’ solo performance about the American actor Edwin Booth deserves a place in the Smithsonian.  

Honorable Mention: 

Ryson Allman in “REVOLUTIONARY LOVE

A celebration of the life and work of Turkish poet and social activist Nazim Hikmet structured as an operetta of poetry by director Fulya Diner.

Tyler Peck in “ANOUILH’S ANTIGONE

Excellently directed by Joseph Matarrese.

David Laffey in  ”MARRY ME A LITTLE

Producer/director Janet Miller’s splendid mounting of Stephen Sondheim’s 1980 musical also featuring Jessie Withers.

Ryan Vincent Anderson in  “BRIGHT SWORDS

Playwright Rick Creese’s solid and intelligent bio of Ira Aldridge, the great black Shakespearean actor of the `19th century.  

BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTRESS:  

A Three Way Tie (Hey, it happens!)

BELLA MERLIN in  “NELL GWYNNE – A DRAMATICK ESSAYE ON ACTING AND PROSTITUTION

Bella Merlin as one of history’s most engaging and tasty tarts.

MARIA TOMAS in  “BLOOD, A VOODOO LOVE STORY

BRITTANY KILCOYNE MCGREGOR in  “ANOUILH’S ANTIGONE

BEST ENSEMBLE

Another tie!

THENARDIER’S INN

And

ANOUILH’S ANTIGONE

Honorable Mention: 

“LA LA LA STRADA

The Proboscis Theater Company’s exploration of the artist and creative process through their investigation of Federico Fellini’s 1954 film “La Strada”. 

Honorable Mention:

”D’ARC VOICESRETELLING THE STORY OF JOAN OF ARC

BEST SOLO PERFORMANCE

BILL OBERST JR. in “PILLAR OF FIRE

A riveting staging of Ray Bradbury’s earliest novel.

JUDGE’S PICK AWARD

CLIFF TODD in  “THE LEGEND OF BOBBY DARRIN

My lovely wife Marlene didn’t know who Bobby Darrin was.  After a half hour of YouTube she pronounced Cliff made a better Bobby.

There was also fantastic work by Rebecca Lincoln in”ANNA IN THE DARKNESS” which proved to be the first jaw dropper of the Fringe for me, but far from the last, Penny Pollak’s in “NO TRAVELER” a lighthearted descent to hell, Laura Carson in “BOOZE, BALLS AND BLUEGRASS” and Cyanne McClairian in “I DIED…I CAME BACKWHATEVER

As well as Christopher Piehler in “RESERVE CHAMPION” and magician and slight of hand artist Simon Coronel’s “GLITCHES IN REALITY”, An amazing talent in the league of Ricky Jay. 

In Closing…

It was a year of tremendous achievements for theatre in LA; and yet we seem to struggle with recognizing the strengths that should unite us.  Like a fencing champion with a foil forged by a mad sword smith we seem to thrust with our foibles.

Common threats – a disinterested city bureaucracy, a disdainful media – are still before us inhibiting the prestige and standing we have the right to claim.  Perhaps more ominous is the dwindling proportion of our fellow LAers who have been sensitized and introduced to the experience of theatre, who are aware of the power and the magic which can be found sitting in a small darkened room amid strangers all gazing at figures on a raised platform bathed in glowing halos of light.

We go to theatre to watch others search for themselves, knowing that in that search we are seeking some sense of ourselves.

These dangers have always been with us, but now they grow, and there are storm clouds gathering in the east.

Next year I am sure we will do great things, but I am not sure that will suffice.

I think the time has come for us to do great things as a community.

Happy New Year my friends.