By Pat Launer
It’s the time of year for lists and hierarchies. Best of this, award-worthy that. So, after having seen more than 200 shows in 2015, I’m jumping on the bandwagon.
It was a stellar year of theater, in a town that’s known for its theater. There was a particularly striking array of new work – imaginative, provocative and impressive. My top five shows are unequivocal and unforgettable. The rest of the excellent creations could appear in any order. They all deserve glory and acclaim.
1. Come From Away — A world premiere musical at the La Jolla Playhouse, co-produced by Seattle Repertory Theatre. Magnificently directed by Christopher Ashley, it’s a heart-rending story of the 7,000 people who were deposited in Gander, Newfoundland, after their planes were diverted following the 9/11 attacks. The most stirring and uplifting show to come along in years.
2. Indecent — Another world premiere at the La Jolla Playhouse, a play with music, written by Pulitzer Prize-winner Paula Vogel and magnificently directed by Rebecca Taichman. A play about a play (“The God of Vengeance”) written in Yiddish in 1907; the writer who created it; the actors who appeared in it; and the arrest of the cast and producer when it opened on Broadway in 1936. All were accused of obscenity. Maybe censorship of the arts is most indecent of all.
3. The Quality Of Life — A San Diego premiere, by Emmy Award-winning L.A. writer Jane Anderson (“Mad Men”), brought to us by Intrepid Theatre Company. Under the astute direction of Christy Yael-Cox, a stupendous ensemble captured the moral, spiritual and political conflicts and commonalities between two very disparate couples. As a dying man who chooses to go in his own way (via assisted suicide), Jeffrey Jones gave one of the more memorable performances of the year.
4. Spring Awakening — Okay, this one wasn’t in San Diego (I’ve seen six productions of the musical here), but it was worth traveling to L.A. for, and won’t be soon forgotten. Deaf West Theatre, which presents its shows bilingually (in English and American Sign Language) brought beautiful nuance to this fraught tale of burgeoning teenage sexuality and communication breakdowns between parents and their kids. Wonderful direction by Michael Arden (who played the title role in “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” at the La Jolla Playhouse last year).
5. The White Snake – a drop-dead gorgeous touring production directed by the justly acclaimed Mary Zimmerman (Tony Award-winner and MacArthur “genius” grantee), produced at The Old Globe. A gorgeously theatricalized 2000 year old Chinese legend about the circuitous and unpredictable path of love, brilliantly told with poetry and puppets.
6. The Twenty-Seventh Man – The West coast premiere of the first play written by celebrated novelist Nathan Englander, who adapted his own short story, which was workshopped at the Public Theatre in New York under the direction of Barry Edelstein, who directed it here at The Old Globe. A tragic tale of Stalin’s brutal 1952 annihilation of all the Yiddish poets and novelists in the Soviet Union, this was a gut-wrenching testament to writers and storytelling.
7. Oedipus El Rey – Playwright Luis Alfaro brought the 2500 year old Sophocles classic into the barrio, and at the San Diego Repertory Theatre, Sam Woodhouse directed a gorgeously rhythmic, stylized production of this heart-rending tale of fate and faith, passion, hubris and the violence-riddled lives of many Latino men.
8. Night, Mother – A searing, Pulitzer Prize-winning drama about despair and desperation. A young woman is determined to kill herself, and her mother will do anything to stop her. At ion theatre, Glenn Paris helmed a magnificent pair of performances, by Yolanda Franklin and Sylvia M’Lafi Thompson.
9. The Whale – Samuel D. Hunter’s award-winning drama (with surprising elements of humor) is laced with symbolism and allegory (the title character weighs in at 600 pounds). At Cygnet Theatre, Shana Wride cast a stellar ensemble and brought touching sensitivity to a heartbreaking play.
10. You Can’t Take It With You – Lest you think every play was dark and intense, there were some hilarious comic moments last year, too. Lamb’s Players Theatre director Kerry Meads mounted a deliciously irresistible production of this timeless, Pulitzer Prize-winning 1937 Moss Hart/George S. Kaufman comedy about an eccentric family that reminds us all to be a little wild and crazy. Take that to heart in the new year! Also noteworthy in the comic domain: Samantha Ginn’s side-splitting performance as the title canine in “Sylvia” at New Village Arts (being reprised January 7-24).
It was so hard to narrow my favorites to just 10. Here are a few other productions that were memorable and bear mentioning: “Trouble in Mind” at Moxie Theatre, “Big Fish” at Moonlight Stage Productions, “Blueprints to Freedom” at the La Jolla Playhouse, “Dogfight” at Cygnet Theatre and “Violet” at the San Diego Repertory Theatre.
Theatergoers and theatermakers around the country know that San Diego is a hotbed of dramatic invention and ingeuity. You should know it, too. Consider giving your loved ones — or yourself! — a gift of theater this year.
Happy New Year, and I hope you put a little Drama in your life in 2016!
Pat Launer is a long-time San Diego arts writer and an Emmy Award-winning theater critic. An archive of her previews and reviews can be found at www.patteproductions.com.
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