By Pat Launer
In this singular year of turmoil, theater was a welcome escape. But it also served as a reflecting mirror, or a cautionary tale. And it urged us sit up and take notice. To stay sharp. Keep well informed. Get involved. Avoid complacency. Our democracy and our way of life depend on it.
In 2017, I saw nearly 200 performances, and that included a lot of very strong — and more important, very memorable — work, which makes it hard to narrow down the best.
Sure, there were comic, lightweight moments to savor. But I was especially challenged, moved and/or impassioned by plays that touched on vital current issues: race, immigration, workers’ rights, gender equality — whether or not they were set in the present time.
Impressively, six of my top ten were written by women, seven were directed or co-directed by women, and seven of these thirteen were women of color. A remarkable showing for San Diego theaters.
These are the productions that had the most searing impact, and stayed with me long after the lights went up.
1. Father Comes Home from The Wars, Parts 1,2 and 3 by Suzan-Lori Parks, produced by Intrepid Theatre, and beautifully directed by Christy Yael-Cox. A provocative and disturbing story from the masterful Parks, who set the action during the Civil War, with a plantation owner who promises his slave freedom, if he’ll join his master in the fighting — on the Confederate side. The play considers the cost of a slave and the worth of a man, and contemplates freedom, fidelity, honesty and identity – for these characters and more broadly, for all Americans. Wonderful performances throughout, especially by Cortez L. Johnson and Tom Stephenson.
2. The Ballad of Emmett Till by Ifa Bayeza, at ion theatre, stunningly co-directed by Yolanda Marie Franklin and Claudio Raygoza. A magnificent ensemble symbolically, even poetically, enacted the harrowing true story of the brutal beating and murder of a black boy (Emmett Till, age 14) who had the temerity to whistle at a white woman in 1955 Jim Crow Mississippi. The lack of change since that time is excruciating: young black men are still being brutalized for minimal (or no) crimes.
3. Wild Goose Dreams, by Hansol Jung, a spectacular world premiere co-produced by the La Jolla Playhouse and The Public Theater of New York. Marvelously directed by Leigh Silverman, the production ingeniously personified the internet with an a capella chorus that vocalized emojis and computer sounds, to tell an immigrant tale of loneliness and displacement. The relationship between a South Korean man and an escaped North Korean woman straddled the line between reality and fantasy in wildly imaginative ways.
4. Skeleton Crew, by Dominique Morisseau, a co-production of The Old Globe and Moxie Theatre. Downsizing and job loss took center stage in this fraught tale of auto factory workers in Detroit, skillfully directed by Delicia Turner Sonnenberg, who shepherded a strong ensemble that mined the humor as well as the heartache.
5. Hand to God, by Robert Askins, directed by Sam Woodhouse at the San Diego Repertory Theatre. This crazy, subversive, hilariously dark and devilish (semi-autobiographical) comedy about a puppet ministry in semi-rural Cypress Texas. A shy, grieving adolescent boy (a tour de force performance by Caleb Foote) is overtaken by his demonic, foul-mouthed, XXX-rated hand puppet, to disastrous effect — but to our macabre delight.
6. Shockheaded Peter, at Cygnet Theatre, created in 1998 by Julian Crouch and Phelim McDermott of London’s Improbable Theatre. A wild piece, wildly directed by Rob Lutfy, this off-the-wall musical exposed the dark underbelly of the grimmest and most grisly of German Fairy Tales. The music, composed by the British punk-cabaret cult trio, The Tiger Lilies, was mostly sung in hair-raising falsetto (wonderfully, by Steve Gouveia, paired with an equally unique performance by Sarah Errington), representing awful, abusive parents, scary specters and terrifying mayhem. Which only goes to show that sometimes, just sometimes, the most sinister among us do get their comeuppance.
7. Blue Door, by Tanya Barfield, at Moxie Theatre, expertly directed by Delicia Turner Sonnenberg, about a success-obsessed, erudite African American man, visited by the ghosts of his ancestors, who remind him of the perils of cutting yourself off from your personal and cultural history. Superb performances by Vimel Sephus as the main character, and Cortez L. Johnson as everyone else.
8. Cabaret, the magnificent Kander & Ebb musical classic, set in decadent Weimar Germany, was given a chilling, twisted spin by director Claudio Raygoza at ion theatre. He underscored the similarities to the present day (a red baseball cap made an ominous appearance) and the unheeded threat of oppression and tyranny. Costumed and made-up like an organ grinder’s monkey, 14 year-old Scotty Atienza was frighteningly focused, talented and terrifying, as he split the role of Emcee with the redoubtable Linda Libby.
9. 2.5 Minute Ride and Well – Diversionary Theatre’s terrific pairing of two autobiographical plays about the dysfunctional family of acclaimed playwright Lisa Kron. While the stories she told are both harrowing and hilarious, what was most unforgettable were the splendid performances by Shana Wride (“2.5,” a solo show, directed by Rosina Reynolds) and Annie Hinton (“Well,” directed by Kym Pappas).
10. “An American in Paris,” the stunning national tour of the musical/dance version of the beloved Gene Kelly movie, brought to us by Broadway San Diego. The choreography was inspired, the dancing was phenomenal, the story, scenery and full orchestra were sublime. All this, plus the music of George and Ira Gershwin. To borrow from one of their exquisite songs, Who could ask for anything more?
Other Notable and/or Memorable productions
Benny and Joon — a world premiere musical at The Old Globe, as quirky as the 1993 film, with a knockout performance by Bryce Pinkham as the idiosyncratic Sam, an inveterate film fan who communicates by replicating the voices of famous stars. His deadpan delivery and killer physical comedy were mesmerizing.
Our Great Tchaikovsky — the best, and most personal, of the multi-talented Hershey Felder’s composer creations premiered at the San Diego Rep.
Black Pearl Sings — a two-hander at the San Diego Rep that featured an aching, vocally gorgeous performance by Minka Wiltz as a belligerent Texas prisoner who wins her release by helping a white woman seeking pre-slavery folk songs.
8 Songs for a Mad King — Bodhi Tree Concerts’ solo opera/monodrama at the 5th San Diego International Fringe Festival. Very timely and topical (Walter Dumelle, cunningly directed by Kim Strassberger, wore an oversized red necktie as he ranted), with a clever use of real-time tweeting for the audience that made the avant garde drama ring with laughter
A Piece of My Heart — At OnStage Playhouse, director James P. Darvas used bold creativity to make these gut-wrenching monologues about the unheralded, uncounted women who served in Vietnam spring to searing life
Silent Sky and “The Explorers Club — two expertly designed and acted productions at Lamb’s Players Theatre. Both confronted issues of gender inequality, as female scientists struggled to be taken seriously
Awake and Sing – At New Village Arts, Kristianne Kurner staged a stellar revival of the 1935 Clifford Odets drama about one eccentric family struggling through the Great Depression. The design and ensemble were outstanding, but it’s the message of the play that continues to reverberate: Don’t get bogged down by your social/political/familial commitments. Rise up! Awake and Sing!
Looking ahead to 2018, here’s hoping for another potent, compelling and inspiring year of theater that makes us think, and feel, and maybe even rise up.
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 patlauner.com. You can hear Pat discuss the year in theater, and the upcoming year, in the half-hour radio show “Inside Art,” airing on KSDS, 88.3FM, at 9:30 a.m. on Sunday, Dec. 31.
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