2013: The year’s best Bay Area theater

2013 (third try)

If you’re looking for the year’s best, you can shorten your search by heading directly to Word for Word, that ever-amazing group that turns short works of fiction into some of the most captivating theater we see around here. This year, we were graced with two outstanding Word for Word productions.

You Know When the Men Are Gone – Word for Word’s first show of the year was based on two excellent stories by Siobhan Fallon. We are a country at war, and as such, we can never be reminded too often about the sacrificed made not only by the men and women serving in harm’s way but also the families and friends they leave behind. These connected stories, masterfully directed by Joel Mullenix and Amy Kossow, created a direct, emotional through line into the heart of an experience we need to know more about. Read my review here.

In Friendship – A few months later, Word for Word returned to celebrate its 20th anniversary by casting the nine founding women in several stories by Zona Gale about small-town, Midwestern life. It was pleasure from start to finish, with the added emotional tug of watching the founders of this extraordinary company acting together for the first time. Read my review here.

Campo Santo, Intersection for the Arts and California Shakespeare Theater collaborated this year on an intimate epic about the Golden State we call home comprising three plays, art projects, symposia and all kinds of assorted projects. This kind of collaboration among companies is exactly the kind of thing we need to infuse the art form with new energy and perspectives. The best of the three theatrical offerings was the first.

The River – Playwright Richard Montoya authored the first two plays in this collaboration, and though the Cal Shakes-produced American Night was wild and enjoyable, Montoya’s The River, directed by Sean San José had the irresistible pull of a fast-moving current. A truly original work, the play was part comedy, part romance, part spiritual exploration. Read my review here.

Ideation – My favorite new play of the year is from local scribe Aaron Loeb because it was fresh, funny and a thriller that actually has some thrills. Part of San Francisco Playhouse’s Sandbox Series for new play development, Ideation is still in search of the perfect ending, but you can expect to hear much more about this taut drama of corporate intrigue and interpersonal nightmares. Read my review here.

The Pianist of Willesden Lane – The combination of heartbreaking personal history and heart-expanding piano music made this Berkeley Repertory Theatre presentation the year’s best solo show. Mona Golabek tells the story of her mother’s exit from Germany as part of the Kindertransport includes all the horror and sadness you’d expect from a Holocaust story, but her telling of it is underscored by her exquisite piano playing. Read my review here.

Other Desert CitiesTheatreWorks demonstrated the eternal appeal of a well-told family drama with this Jon Robin Baitz play about Palm Springs Republicans, their lefty-liberal children and the secrets they all keep. This one also happens to have the most beautiful set of the year as well (by Alexander Dodge). Read my review here.

The Fourth MessengerTanya Shaffer and Vienna Tang created a beguiling new musical (no easy feat) about Buddha (absolutely no easy feat). The show’s world premiere wasn’t perfect, but it was damn good. Expect big things from this show as it continues to grow into its greatness. Read my review here.

Good People – Any play starring Amy Resnick has a good chance of ending up on my year’s best list, but Resnick was beyond great in this David Lindsay Abaire drama at Marin Theatre Company. Her Margie was the complex center of this shifting, surprising story of old friends whose lives went in very different directions, only to reconnect at a key moment. Read my review here.

The Taming – One of the year’s smartest, slyest, most enjoyable evenings came from Crowded Fire Theatre and busy, busy local playwright Lauren Gunderson. This spin (inspired by The Taming of the Shrew) was madcap with a sharp, satiric edge and featured delicious comic performances by Kathryn Zdan, Marilee Talkington and Marilet Martinez. Read my review here.

Terminus – Oh so dark and oh so very strange, Mark O’Rowe’s return to the Magic Theatre found him exploring theatrical storytelling that encompassed everyday lie, mythic monsters and rhymed dialogue. Director Jon Tracy and his remarkable trio of actors (Stacy Ross, Marissa Keltie and Carl Lumbly) grabbed our attention and didn’t let it go for nearly two hours. Read my review here.

No Man’s Land – Seems a little unfair to include this production here if only because the can’t-miss team of Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Patrick Stewart would likely be a year’s best no matter where they were performing or what they were doing. In this case, they were headed to Broadway but stopped at Berkeley Rep to work on Harold Pinter’s enigmatic comic drama. Their work (along with that of Billy Crudup and Shuler Hensley) provided laughs and insight and complexity where you didn’t know any was possible. Pure master class from start to finish. Read my review here.

Breakout star of the year: Megan Trout. It was impossible not to be transfixed by Megan Trout not once but twice this year. She illuminated the stage as Bonnie Parker in the Mark Jackson-directed Bonnie and Clyde at Shotgun Players and then stole the show in the Aurora Theatre Company’s A Bright New Boise as a shy big-box store employee who is mightily intrigued by the new guy who also happens to have been involved with a now-defunct cult. Trout has that magnetic ability to compel attention and then deliver something utterly real and constantly surprising.

To Sirs with love: Pinpointing Pinter at Berkeley Rep

No Man's Land 1
Ian McKellen (left) is Spooner and Patrick Stewart is Hirst in Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre. Below: Shuler Hensley (left) is Briggs and Billy Crudup is Foster, the two men who are running Hirst’s life for him. Photos courtesy of kevinberne.com.

What pure theatrical pleasure it is to spend two hours in the baffling world of playwright Harold Pinter with Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Patrick Stewart as our guides. These two fascinating craftsmen, under the direction of the equally astute Sean Mathias, are a show unto themselves in the choices they make, the characters they draw and the relationships they forge with each other and with the audience. No Man’s Land may be about some sort of limbo between the vibrancy of youth and the incapacity of old age (or, more simply, between living life and just waiting for death), but in truth, it’s a masterful workshop in which gifted thespians practice their craft.

Pinter’s play itself is an enigma (as so many Pinter plays seem to be). What is actually going on? Well, two older gentlemen, Hirst (Stewart) and Spooner (McKellen) have met at a pub near London’s Hampstead Heath and have returned to Hirst’s well-appointed home for a few (dozen) nightcaps. From appearances, which is all we have to go on for a while, it would seem the men are from different worlds. Hirst is immaculately turned out in a well-tailored suit and tie. Spooner, on the other hand, is a vision of shabbiness. His striped suit is ill fitting, his shirt cuffs are frayed, he’s wearing cheap sneakers and his socks are filthy. Could Spooner be homeless? Yes he could. But he has a certain dignity about him and an ability to create an illusion of educated entitlement that doesn’t make him seem totally out of place in the sparsely furnished room of Hirst’s manse (the note-perfect set and costume designs are by Stephen Brimson Lewis).

The two men drink and talk – well, Spooner does most of the talking – and the mystery just intensifies as they consume whiskey, or “the great malt which wounds.” Spooner brags that he’s a great man of “intelligence and perception” and to prove it, he is constantly fishing pencils out of his coat pocket and punctuating and underlining the air.

When Hirst does talk, his words carry weight. “Tonight, my friend, you find me in the last lap of a race I had long forgotten to run,” he says. To which, Spooner responds: “A metaphor. Things are looking up.” There’s an uneasy darkness in this play, but also sparks of humor.

Hirst grunts a great deal and withdraws into a state of near immobility. Could be the drink or perhaps a more nefarious condition. At one point, Hirst is on the ground and manages to crawl out of the room. “I’ve seen that before,” Spooner says. “The exit through the door by way of belly on floor.”

No Man's Land 2

Spooner is alone and awkward for a bit until we meet Hirst’s henchmen, Foster (Billy Crudup) and Briggs (Shuler Hensley). Foster claims to be Hirst’s son, but there’s no real confirmation of that. Then he says he’s Hirst’s secretary. Briggs is sort of a bodyguard/man Friday, but then again, he and Foster may be con men or criminals taking advantage of Hirst’s elevated state (he’s apparently a revered man of letters with enough money to merit a meeting with a financial adviser). Or they may really be taking care of Hirst as he slides into oblivion.

Nothing is for sure in this world other than Hirst’s curved drawing room looks like a mausoleum, Hirst himself is dealing with something resembling dementia and Spooner is looking for a way to improve his sorry lot in later life.

What is certain is that these for actors and director Mathias have delved deep into the play and found a way to make it come across as a slice of off-kilter life. You don’t have to know what’s going on or what’s real or true to appreciate that these four characters have layers and connections and interesting relationships with life (and each other).

There’s a scene in Act 2 with Stewart and McKellen at the breakfast table that is so beguiling, so full of a shared past that may be completely invented, that your jaw just drops in awe. Not even the arrival of paramedics to deal with a medical emergency in the rear of the orchestra on opening night could divert the audience’s attention away from the stage.

Stewart rages and suffers and struts, but McKellen walks away with the play. His Spooner is so finely tuned, so sharply etched it’s hard to watch anyone else on stage. And he’s funny, hilarious really, in ways that call to mind great comics of the silent era (Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd). Watch him pouring a whiskey for Hirst while juggling his own glass and the bottle. Or swooping down to tie his ratty shoelaces. But there’s also, under the posturing and the comic flourishes, something so desperate, so despairing in Spooner. There’s a lot of beautiful language in No Man’s Land, and McKellen, even more than any of his superb co-stars, lifts it to lyrical, meaningful heights. “No man’s land, which never moves, which never changes, which never grows older, which remains forever icy and silent,” Spooner says. Beautiful, abstract, poetic.

After Berkeley, No Man’s Land heads to Broadway, where it will join Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot with the same four actors in rotating rep. On some days, you’ll be able to see both plays – hard to imagine a more joyously mind-blowing theatrical experience than that. Pinter, Beckett, Stewart and McKellen. As Hirst says at the end of the play, “I’ll drink to that.”

[bonus interview]
I sat down with Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Patrick Stewart during a rehearsal break at Berkeley Rep. Read about it here.

Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land continues through Aug. 31 in Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $50-$135 (subject to change). Call 510-647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org. Good luck getting tickets.