Ryder Bach (left) and Jason Hite in Girlfriend my favorite show of the year (oops, spoiler alert!). Photo courtesy of www.kevinberne.com
I did two things I’m proud of this year. I worked for a great theater company and I stopped working for a great theater company. From June 2009 to September 2010, I was the communications manager for Berkeley Repertory Theatre, and it was a fantastic experience. For a critic to jump the fence and experience a theater company from the inside was the education of a lifetime.
A job change in September allowed me to go back to writing and reviewing with a renewed vigor and appreciation for the art of theater.
And my timing couldn’t have been better. All of a sudden, with the launch of the fall season, it seemed that the Bay Area was the epicenter of all good theater. With Compulsion at Berkeley Rep, Scapin at American Conservatory Theater and the opening of The Brother/Sister Plays at Marin Theatre Company, there was great theater everywhere you turned.
Herewith, a conventional Top 10 list for 2010 – starting at No. 10 and working toward No. 1.
10. … and Jesus Moonwalks the Mississippi ̶ Marcus Gardley’s gorgeous tone poem of a play featured music, humor and history swirled into an extraordinary production courtesy of Cutting Ball Theater and the Playwrights Foundation.
9. Superior Donuts – The joys of a well-made play were incredibly evident in this wonderfully sturdy, amply entertaining drama from Tracy Letts and TheatreWorks. What lingers in memory, aside from the sweet, sitcom-ish world the play inhabits is Lance Gardner’s star-making performance as Franco Wicks.
8. Much Ado About Nothing – The joys of California Shakespeare Theater’s warm, autumn-tinged production were many, but chief among the pleasures was Danny Scheie in dual roles as Don John and Dogberry. What Scheie did with the latter, the word-mangling constable was nothing short of miraculous. He turned a one-note comic character into a richly shaded human being.
7. Palomino – David Cale was the only person in his solo show, but the Aurora Theatre Company stage was brimming with extraordinary characters. This is how one-man shows should go – and best of all, it seemed like an actual play and not an indulgent autobiography.
6. Rabbit Hole – I have yet to see the Nicole Kidman movie version of David Lindsay-Abaire’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play. But the version that will be forever etched into my brain came from the Palo Alto Players onstage at the Lucie Stern Theatre. Director Marilyn Langbhen’s production hit all the right emotional notes, and though the play is filled with grief, it left the audience full of cathartic hope.
5. Scapin – This production will go down in history as the one in which star Bill Irwin got upstaged by one of his co-stars. Part of the genius of this rollicking ACT production was that Irwin, who directed as well as starred, happily shared his ample spotlight with the rest of the cast. And the one who emerged as the evening’s true star? Jud Williford, one of ACT’s own.
4. Compulsion – On paper, this seemed like an iffy proposition: puppets and humans bring to life a thinly disguised true-life tale of a man obsessed with Anne Frank’s diary. But on Berkeley Rep’s Thrust Stage, and under Oskar Eustis’ astute direction, this play was about as compelling as theater gets – especially with the masterful marionettes interacting with three fantastic actors: Mandy Patinkin, Hannah Cabell and Matte Osian.
3. The Brother/Sister Plays – Beginning at Marin Theatre Company then spreading to the Magic Theatre and then to ACT, Tarell Alvin McCraney’s trilogy allowed three Bay Area theaters to collaborate in a way that made audiences giddy with delight. Each production, from Marin’s In the Red and Brown Water to the Magic’s The Brothers Size to ACT’s Marcus, or the Secret of Sweet, made the entire experience that much richer. I think my favorite, because it was so emotionally astute, was the Octavio Solis-directed Brothers at the Magic.
2. 9 Circles – Thinking about Bill Cain’s Iraq War drama still gives me chills. Craig Marker’s central performance in this Kent Nicholson-directed three hander was mind blowing. He inhabited the role of soldier Daniel Edward Reeves so powerfully that even the phenomenal work of co-star James Carpenter was a little overshadowed. And that was OK because this was Daniel’s story – the story of what war can do to the mind of a young soldier. People should have been in lines around the block to get into this Marin Theatre Company production, but alas, the show didn’t even extend.
1. Girlfriend – I can’t even begin to name all the reasons why I loved this Berkeley Repertory Theatre musical so much. I didn’t review it because I was working at the theater company at the time, but not only is it my favorite show of the year, it’s probably my favorite Berkeley Rep show of the last two decades. Director Les Waters’ production was the perfect embodiment of Todd Almond’s script and Matthew Sweet’s music. Choreographer Joe Goode made a non-dance show move in just the right ways, and stars Jason Hite and Ryder Bach were sweet and recognizable and full of heart. And the all-girl bend led by Julie Wolf kicked some serious ass.