As an “indie” theatre reviewer, I have the opportunity to see the good, the bad and the downright weird in any given year. This past year was no exception, although the good seemed much harder to come by and the weird, well…there was plenty of weirdness to go around. So what happened?
In a word, fear. The fear of dwindling tickets sales and subscribers in the wake of a recession and our local economy on the skids. The fears of producers investing in new shows let alone new playwrights. The fear of fewer venues, higher rents, which are leaving some to either close their doors permanently or rethink their artistic and fiscal strategies. There’s only so much money left in the till, making two-hander plays, minimum sets and equity wavers more lucrative and viable.
Where does that leave us? Or, more pointedly, where does that leave smaller to mid-size theatre companies forced to compete with the deep pockets, titan advertising and reputations of say, the Ahmanson, Pantages or the Geffen Playhouse? I’m not against these “biggie” theatres, but like our current national economy it appears that a chokehold around the middle class and namely mid-size theatres is causing a bottleneck of two extremes: the have’s and have not’s. As a theatre critic, I am becoming increasingly alarmed by having to choose between a flashy touring production or a black box theatre that seats only about 25 with a very dim marquee outside. Sometimes I wonder if I’m writing obits not reviews.
Is theatre dying? My answer is no—at least not yet. It is changing however and in the face of this change, I can only hope that what we have seen in the past year can be attributed to the fears that are sweeping across our nation. After all, art imitates life. The challenge therefore lies in being able to balance passion and innovation with fiscal responsibility and stronger leadership within the theatre community and the companies themselves.
It is tempting to forget how much money and sheer energy goes into mounting a show. Critics arrive with their pens and notepads on opening night hoping to be blown away by something so spectacular we forget to so much as jot down our notes. I believe every reviewer wants to write a good review if it is deserved, and even a bad night at the theatre is better than no theatre at all. But all the drama and the hubris that occurs prior to us taking to our reserved seats is probably the most interesting, under reported aspect of any production. Anyone who says, “Theatre can make a lot of money,” is either Garth Drabinsky or trying to sell you something. It’s easy to say that money should not be the focal point of theatrical discussion, but NOT talking about the realities comes with more severe consequences. It takes a lot of guts, vision and more than a few greenbacks to make a show in our current climes profitable and entertaining, let alone artistically commendable.
Many people, including our EyeSpyLA readers, my editor and PR contacts often inquire as to why I don’t cover more of the bigger venues. I certainly can. Big name productions garner more readership overall, a sad fact that goes to the troubling uncertainty of lesser-known companies. This last year was a bit of an experiment and a personal holdout for me to strive towards reviewing shows and theatre companies that sometimes slip between the cracks and spine of our Playbills and Footlights programs. I didn’t see them all, but I tried to see and promote (even bad press is still good press) the theatre companies that are in more danger of winking out than their stalwart competitors will ever be.
It is my hope that this year will see braver productions, fuller houses, and more vigorous energy and passion overall than this last which had a few noteworthy exceptions, but overall suffered from an apathetic spirit that created productions of the “playing it safe” variety instead of delivering something vital.
TOP 10 IN 2010
I’ll be here with my trusty pen and notepad. I only hope to be so mesmerized that I forget to jot my thoughts down. You never forget an amazing or compelling show and below are my personal top ten in 2010. I hope you attended some of these and will continue to support our local theatre community.
The following list is in no particular order. It’s hard enough to narrow it down to ten let alone give each one some sort of preeminence over the other. Feel free to leave a comment on any show you saw this year that either I didn’t see or didn’t make the 2010 list.
1. Liberty Inn by Dakin Matthews Directed by Anne McNaughton
Excerpt taken from my REVIEW: Dakin Matthews, (book and lyrics), and B.T. Rybeck (music) revitalize Carlo Goldoni’s 18th century masterpiece, “La locandiera” (The Mistress of the Inn) with a lively score and great humor that is infectiously fun.
What’s not to love? This humorous little gem was just a rollicking good time with excellent music and lyrics. Sets and costumes were superb. Cast phenomenal! I left with a big smile on my face!
Venue: New Place Studio Theatre in NoHo
Good street-side parking, but easy to miss the side street turnoff
Theatre size: Intimate. Very.
Could spring for better programs
Dining: We recommend the Eclectic Café around the corner.
2. Awake and Sing by Clifford Odets Directed by Andrew J. Traister
Excerpt taken from my REVIEW: About the only negative comment I have is how apt and contemporary this play still is judging by our own current times. It only took seventy-five years to come around full circle to see the Bergers in similar circumstances we find ourselves in today. Granted, things may not be as bleak as they were then, but when we look upon the Bergers, we are really looking at ourselves. A Noise Within gives this classic a pulse and a purpose to hope for better days ahead.
Moving and beautiful, this timely play was further exemplified by a terrific cast. Soon to be in their new digs this fall in Pasadena, I look forward to seeing more productions of this caliber from A Noise Within. They rarely disappoint!
Venue: Currently in their last season at the old Masonic Temple on 234 S. Brand Blvd in Glendale. They will be moving into their 300-seat permanent location by this fall in Pasadena.
Parking isn’t great. Arrive early and be prepared to plug the meters.
Theatre size: Spacious but the seats aren’t very comfortable.
Dining: Plenty to choose from within walking distance. We recommend arriving a few hours before the show on the weekend and make an evening of it at the Americana at the Brand.
3. King Lear (Double Cast) by William Shakespeare Directed by Bart DeLorenzo
Excerpt taken from my REVIEW: To see “King Lear” once in awhile is an exhaustive experience alone, but to see it twice on consecutive nights is akin to blissful agony. Blissful in that the rotating double-cast Antaeus Ensemble packs an emotional wallop, searing the words to your brain like a scalding red-hot poker. The agony, then, is the tragedy of how the foolish and arrogant antics of a king are his ultimate undoing—again and again—both figuratively and in this case, literally.
Antaeus Theater Ensemble proves that doubling the cast means double the pleasure of seeing two phenomenal productions. No detail is spared and no two casts are completely alike. This was a triumphant season and this year will no doubt bring more of the same impeccable quality.
Note: Antaeus will be holding AUDITIONS for their Academy on Jan 14 and 15.
Venue: Deaf West Theatre in NoHo
Parking can be a pain on Lankershim Blvd, especially on weekends. There is parking made available sometimes at the Citibank structure although this is not always a guarantee.
Theatre size: Cozy but not too many bad seats in this house
Dining: A few nearby eateries are available right around the corner. We recommend the PitFire Grill (especially in the summer), but there’s also the Eclectic Café and NoHO Diner (open 24hrs) for dining after the show.
4. All My Sons by Arthur Miller Directed by Edward Edwards
Excerpt taken from my REVIEW: For those familiar with Miller’s Tony award winning play, this is a satisfying production and a testament to a great work that is still timeless and harrowing. For everyone else this should not be missed, but do bring a box of Kleenex as there wasn’t a dry eye in the sold out matinee.
It’s remarkable what the Ruskin Group Theatre Company can do in such an intimate space. The two-story house set alone was commendable but the cast was nothing short of brilliant.
Venue: Airport Avenue in Santa Monica. Small theatre nestled between hangars and directly across from the Santa Monica Airport. Unfortunately, there is the occasional air traffic noise.
Note: Arrive early on the first and fourth Sunday of every month and stroll through the SANTA MONICA AIRPORT FLEA MARKET.
Parking is available in front of the theatre. Make sure not to pay during the Flea Market hours.
Theatre size: Intimate
Dining: The Spitfire Grill always brings a Ruskin theatre-going draw and has a nice atmosphere.
5. Orpheus Descending by Tennessee Williams Directed by Lou Pepe
Excerpt taken from my REVIEW: There is a popular conception that talented stage actors can more easily adapt their fine performances for TV/film than the reverse is true, despite the star power effect on the box office. When the play in question is one of Tennessee Williams’ most challenging productions, there is a tendency to assume the worst going in, especially when the director—Lou Pepe, a documentary filmmaker is cutting his theatrical teeth on such an ambitious and unwieldy vehicle. Surprisingly, Denise Crosby of Star Trek TNG and Gale Harold of Queer as Folk dispel these notions and more than rise to the occasion with scintillating, tactile command in this modern epic love story.
In a town full of TV/Film actors it’s nice to see someone like Denise Crosby make a theatrical comeback in such a meaty role. Excellent casting of Gale Harold from Queer As Folk
Venue: Theatre/Theater on W. Pico Blvd
Good street-side parking
Mainstage theatre: Comfortable size
Dining: Plenty of fast food eateries if you’re looking for a quick bite before the show
6. The Ballad of Emmett Till by Ifa Bayeza Directed by Shirley Jo Finney
Excerpt taken from my REVIEW: Everything leading up to Emmett’s peacocking with a white shopkeeper is nothing short of excellent. From there, the tensions mounts, in a haze of unclear and generalized terror, effective in creating mood, but not altogether transparent are his transgressions and the explosive level of violence. We are left filling in the blanks, which may be exactly what Bayeza intended. There is no suitable answer to the why’s Emmett’s murder leaves us with except pure, unadulterated hate.
Riveting and emotionally explosive, this play, based on the actual Emmett Till whose murder sparked the civil rights movement was one of the Fountain’s finest endeavors. Towards the end, the direction may have become a bit too gratuitous with the violence, but the play itself and the players were nothing short of magnificent.
Venue: The Fountain Theatre on Fountain Avenue
Okay neighborhood parking. Valet parking available
Theatre size: A bit of a squeeze but the seats are comfy
Dining: Go opening night and enjoy a home cooked meal at the after party. For those who attend on other nights we suggest the ever-popular The Kitchen in Silver Lake/Echo Park.
7. Lascivious Something by Sheila Callaghan Directed by Paul Willis
Excerpt taken from my REVIEW: There is not a single misstep here and no one character fits conveniently into a singularly good or bad role. Much like the archetypes on which these characters are loosely based, they are glorious and contemptible, villains and heroes to each other and to the stories their lives have meted out.
Anything that involves wine is usually a thumbs-up from me.
Venue: [Inside] the Ford on Cahuenga Blvd
Ample parking lot
Theatre size: Good size and comfortable seats
Dining: Right smack between Hollywood, Burbank and Studio/Universal City so there’s plenty of eateries depending on your mood. We suggest Pinot Bistro on Ventura Blvd in Universal City.
8. Master Class by Terrence McNally Directed by Heidi Helen Davis
Excerpt taken from my REVIEW: Geer’s Callas may not have you leaping from the balcony (there is no balcony in this amphitheatre), but she will cause your heart to leap a little in your throat. Brava!
Hard to choose from this or their successful “Hamlet” starring Mike Peebler, but I was afraid the ghost of Maria Callas might come after me.
Wonderful season overall at Theatricum Botanicum!
Venue: Topanga Canyon (Outdoor Amphitheatre)
Ample shoulder parking on winding road. Valet parking available
Theatre size: Spacious and natural with lovely gardens and a verdant atmosphere
Dining: We recommend bringing a picnic and eating outside prior to the show. Check out Rocco’s Pizza in Topanga village for those who prefer dining indoors.
9. The Good Woman of Setzuan by Bertolt Brecht Directed by Charles Otte
Excerpt taken from my REVIEW: Not easy questions to answer even in the best of times, but considering our current state of affairs, it’s impossible not to. At the very least, the Open Fist Theatre Company entertains us with these probing social and personal dilemmas in a way that is highly enjoyable and satisfying. We may not leave the theatre with any answers, but Charles Otte’s extraordinary pageantry and sublime direction hits home the message with gorgeous spectacle and tender feeling.
This colorful production proves that being socially relevant can still be artistically stimulating.
Venue: Open Fist Theatre on Santa Monica & Vine
Easy street-side parking free after 7pm. But be aware that during the summer on Saturdays, parking is limited due to Cinespia’s Hollywood Forever film screenings. Arrive early or take the Redline to Vine and walk it.
Theatre size: Comfortable. Very few bad seats in this house
Dining: There are ample choices in Hollywood but we suggest checking out Delancey bar or for a late night after show dinner try out the organic cuisine at Kitchen 24. Open…yup—24hrs.
10. The Sunset Limited by Cormac McCarthy Directed by John Perrin Flynn
Excerpt taken from my REVIEW: The stakes are high in Pulitzer prize-winning novelist Cormac McCarthy’s explosive two-hander mortal struggle over faith versus reason, pitting the philosophical debate in what amounts to an arm-wrestling match between convictions. Heavy on dialogue but low in action, this intellectual smackdown is a white-knuckle, gut-wrenching emotional ride with its shattering conclusion that takes no prisoners.
This show packs a wallop for being an otherwise static play between two men at odds with their own beliefs and each other. McCarthy fans should not miss this play currently extended until 01/31. Emotionally riveting yet at times mentally draining, the performances by Tucker Smallwood and Ron Bottitta more than fill these challenging roles with their dynamic energy.
Venue: Theatre Theater on Pico Blvd
Street side parking is usually good, but neighborhood streets can handle any spillover.
Theatre size: Black Box—Intimate. This space works well for this play.
Dining: For a late night treat, try the greasy spoon of Roscoe’s House of Chicken & Waffles.
I would be remiss if I didn’t include a few honorable mentions here. Again, in no particular order:
1. THE AUTUMN GARDEN by Lillian Hellman
Directed by Larry Biederman
The Antaeus Company
2. FOUR PLACES by Joel Drake Johnson
Directed by Robin Larsen
3. THE TRAIN DRIVER by Athol Fugard
Directed by Stephen Sachs
The Fountain Theatre
4. NEIGHBORS by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins
Directed by Nataki Garrett
The Matrix Theatre Company
5. ALL CAKE NO FILE by Donna Jo Thorndale
Directed by Shira Piven
The Actor’s Gang
And the two shows where I went against the tide of public opinion (drum roll please)…
1. OPUS by Michael Hollinger
Directed by Simon Levy
The Fountain Theatre
2. CYRANO DE BERGERAC by Anthony Burgess
Directed by Rae Allen
Ruskin Group Theatre
For more on theatre, or to read our latest reviews visit our ON STAGE IN LA page. To find local listings of theatres in your area please see our THEATRE or general ENTERTAINMENT page.
--M.R. Hunter (eyespylareviews[at]gmail.com)