Shaun Tuazon (left), Mondis Vakili and Tamara Rodriguez in “House of Joy” at the San Diego Repertory Theatre. Photo by Peggy Ryan

By Pat Launer

It was a tough and terrible year — in oh, so many ways.

Theaters and theatermakers were especially hard-hit. Nationwide, all theater spaces were closed down, and all those who lovingly toil in those spaces lost their gigs and their livelihood — including designers, directors, actors, musicians, stage managers, technicians and more. Some of them may not make it through.

But on the upside, theatermakers remained endlessly imaginative and resourceful, and they found myriad ways to keep creating and performing. The San Diego theater community is impressively tight; they know how to work together, brainstorm together, and bring in a song at any and every opportunity (some of which they’ve written themselves and posted on Facebook or YouTube).

When 2020 began, it seemed like any other year.

In January and February, I saw 30 productions on local stages. Then, a show opened on March 11, and closed the same night. That was the beginning of the pandemic shutdowns.

But that was also when the creativity set in. Different theaters responded in different ways. There were interviews and concerts, cabaret evenings and radio plays, and of course, Zoom readings (and we all got Zoomed-out kind of fast, since it’s also the delivery medium for school and socialization).

As the shutdowns and stay-at-home orders persisted, we started to get filmed versions of productions, nabbed from the archives or made during rehearsals, often with just one camera placed at the back of the house.

And then, more theaters began to create more expansive films of new productions. Some filmed live, socially-distanced productions on their stage — masked! — without an audience. Others took all possible healthy and safety precautions, some even going beyond the county, state and federal mandates, coming up with novel and ingenious ways to offer multiple settings or special effects.

Through it all, I kept watching…

Given everything out there, I managed to see more than 200 theatrical productions of one sort or another (209, to be precise — higher than my totals of the last few years). But only about one-third (74) were San Diego productions; the others were from across the country or across the Pond (London’s National Theatre and Old Vic were especially active).

And of course, there were the Broadway-to-TV productions, the greatest of which was “Hamilton,” filmed for Disney+, magnificently capturing the genius of the work and its incomparable original cast. Less successful were “The Prom” (all-star overacting) and “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” (some great performances, but the marvelous, claustrophobic August Wilson play isn’t, in my opinion, enhanced by being “opened up” for film).

Overall, for this end-of-year wrap, I want to focus primarily on the best efforts created in San Diego. Since it seems unfair to compare apples and eggplants, I came up with a range of alternate categories. It wasn’t a usual year, and theater couldn’t be seen or judged in the usual way.

Best Live Plays

Red Bike” by Caridad Svich, an MFA alumna of UC San Diego, at Moxie Theatre. A dramatic tone-poem that addressed our country’s economic-social-cultural divide through the eyes of an 11 year-old. Thrillingly staged by gifted director Lisa Berger, with acrobatically agile performances by Timothy L. Cabal and Nancy Ross. Excellent scenic (Alondra Velez), lighting (Ashley Bietz) and sound (Matt Lescault-Wood) design, too.

A scene from “Red Bike” at Moxie Theatre.

The Great Leap” by another UCSD alum, Lauren Yee, at Cygnet Theatre. Brilliantly directed by Rob Lutfy, with the rhythm and pacing of a basketball game, its central metaphor.  An Outstanding Ensemble.

Bloomsday” by Steven Dietz, at North Coast Repertory Theatre. A hauntingly beautiful déjà vu story told in the past and present, filled with insights about love, loss, regrets and remorse, performed by a wonderful ensemble.

House of Joy,” by Madhuri Shekar, at the San Diego Repertory Theatre. A stunning production, co-directed by Sam Woodhouse and Arpita Mukherjee (with gorgeous costumes by Jennifer Brawn Gittings), set in the Imperial Harem in 17th century India. This was the fateful show with the same opening and closing night, March 11. The filmed rehearsal that was briefly available for public viewing didn’t do it justice.

Best Live Musicals

“She Loves Me,” the Jerry Bock/Sheldon Harnick musical, at San Diego Musical Theatre. Backed by a 13-piece orchestra (under the baton of Don LeMaster), this lush musical throwback featured a superb cast and staging (direction by LA-based Richard Israel; choreography by Lauren Haughton).

“A Chorus Line,” the Marvin Hamlisch/Edward Kleban musical, at The Welk Theatre. Director/choreographer Hector Guerrero re-created the iconic Michael Bennett dance moves with a stellar, 25-member cast of triple-threats (actor-singer-dancers).

Best Live Duets

Tony Houck and JD Dumas, malleable physical/comical actor/singers and killer pianists, under the comical/hysterical/suspenseful direction of AJ Knox, in “Murder for Two,” by Joe Kinosian and Kellen Blair, at New Village Arts.

The couple, newly-married then, expecting now, Caitie Grady and Charles Evans, Jr., whose vocal duets (by Mozart and others) were absolutely otherworldly in Rose Courtney’s “Babette’s Feast” at Lamb’s Players Theatre.

We all know that nothing comes close to a real, live production with an audience huddled together in a dark room, breathing, gasping, laughing and weeping together. But this past year, we all had to adapt.

Best Zoom Reading

Sofanisba” by Callie Kimball, a reading from The Eastern Theatre Group. Vanessa Dinning expertly directed a hugely accomplished cast of eight, with galvanic Jacquie Wilke at the center as the titular 16th century painter in the Spanish court. A memorable play and production, which was, unfortunately, stymied by the early-in-the-online-game constraints of Actors Equity.

The actors’ union hadn’t yet figured out what folks could and couldn’t do, so they insisted on a “29-hour contract,” which required that all rehearsals, and the performance and talkback, had to take place in no more than a combined total of 29 hours. They explicitly banned any advance public promotion, critical reviews or ticket fees. An absolute shame, because many more people should have seen and appreciated this piece and this cast. I hope The Eastern is able to mount a full production in the future.

Best Filmed Productions: Solo Performances

Roosevelt: Charge the Bear,” from The Roustabouts Theatre Co., written by Phil Johnson and Marni Freedman, starring Johnson in a robust, convincing performance as President Theodore Roosevelt.

Phil Johnson as Theodore Roosevelt in “Roosevelt: Charge the Bear.” Video still by Michael Bruggemeyer

No Way Back,” also from The Roustabouts, a world premiere streaming event by Mahshid Fashandi Hager, based on the true story of her family’s harrowing escape from Iran. Achingly performed by Jessica John, under the astute direction of her husband, Fran Gercke.

Donna Orbits the Moon,” by Ian August, a co-production from Scripps Ranch Theatre and Oceanside Theatre Company (who have teamed up successfully a number of times). A quirky, unpredictable play, with a standout performance by Susan Clausen as a woman losing her grip on reality.

Two local versions of “A Christmas Carol” were also unique. Cygnet Theatre artistic director Sean Murray created a new, pared-down solo version of his annual adaptation, which he directed and performed, estimably. Another filmed version, from North Coast Repertory Theatre, featured James Newcomb, deftly directed by David Ellenstein, in an exciting new re-thinking by Zander Michaelson, narrated by someone who claims he was there when the events occurred. Newcomb beautifully embodied all the characters and added detail and context in the voice of the surprising narrator (revealed at the very end).

Best Filmed Productions: Multiple Characters

The Dazzle,” by Richard Greenberg, produced by Backyard Renaissance Theatre Company, one of few theaters to pull off a successful live, multi-character play. BYR co-founders Francis Gercke and Jessica John, along with Tom Zohar, under the sharp direction of Rosina Reynolds, perfectly captured the look, feel and eccentricities of the real-life 1940s Collyer Brothers, inveterate hoarders. Using multiple cameras and safety precautions on the stage of the Tenth Avenue Arts Centre downtown, the actors were never in the same place at the same time, but it certainly seemed like they were.

Speaking Truth to Power,” by Robert Alexander, from Common Ground Theatre. A very timely piece about sheltering in place and the murder of George Floyd, race, class, white privilege and police brutality, splendidly performed by Monique Gaffney, Laurence Brown and Rhianna Basore, under the direction of Yolanda Marie Franklin. Sadly limited availability. Definitely calls for a fully staged production.

I didn’t include filmed versions of shows I’d already seen — none of which was able to live up to the original live version. Still, over the course of the year, I was transported to other countries and cultures — Spain, China, India, Iran, Afghanistan — and learned new facts about historical figures, including three U.S. Presidents: the aforementioned Theodore Roosevelt; John Quincy Adams (“JQA” from the San Diego Rep); and Abraham Lincoln (sparring and collaborating with Frederick Douglass, in “Necessary Sacrifices,” from North Coast Rep).

You might notice that most of the outstanding work of the year came from our smaller theaters. During the shutdown, our two Tony Award-winning regional theaters were not as productive. During 2020, The Old Globe produced only one live show, “August Wilson’s Jitney,” and one virtual show, the 10-minute “In-Zoom,” with Bill Irwin. Both were well-intentioned disappointments. The Globe focused mainly on their Arts Engagement, with extensive community outreach.

After its live new musical, “Fly” (great first act; problems in the second), the La Jolla Playhouse presented a large number of virtual WOW (Without Walls) offerings. I watched, listened or otherwise experienced just about all of them, but none was as exciting as the live presentations at the WOW Festivals of the past.

So now…. how do we look ahead to 2021?

Expect more creativity, more filmed plays and productions (OB Playhouse just produced an ingeniously filmed musical, “Disenchanted,” with a cast of ten).

And keep waiting… until the abatement of the current surge, until the vaccine is widely disseminated, until theaters are safe to open. But rest assured, we WILL get back into theaters and share the ultimate edutainment artform, live theater. It’s been around since the 6th century B.C.E.; it’s not going anywhere now.

In the meantime, you can do your part. Wash your hands, wear a mask, stay safe and (if only I could quote Samuel L. Jackson’s X-rated 2020 book-reading advice verbatim — check it out on YouTube) Stay Home!

Pat Launer, a member of the American Theatre Critics Association, 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.

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