2007 theater Top 10

I can always tell whether a theater year has been good or not so good when I sit down to hammer out my Top 10 list. If I can summon five or more shows simply from memory, it’s a good year. This year’s entire list came almost entirely from memory (which is a feat in itself as the old noggin’ ain’t what it used to be), so it was a good year indeed.

Here’s the countdown leading to my No. 1 pick of the year.

10. Anna Bella Eema, Crowded Fire Theatre Company — Three fantastic actresses, Cassie Beck, Danielle Levin and Julie Kurtz, brought Lisa D’Amour’s tone poem of a play to thrilling life.

9. First Person Shooter, SF Playhouse and Playground — What a good year for SF Playhouse. This original play by local writer Aaron Loeb brought some powerhouse drama to its examination of violent video games and school violence.

8. Bulrusher, Shotgun Players — Berkeley’s own Eisa Davis’ eloquent play, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for drama, turned the Northern California dialect of Boontling into poetic drama as it told the story of an outcast young woman finding her place in the world.

7. Avenue Q, Best of Broadway/SHN — Hilarious and irreverent, this puppet-filled musical by Jeff Marx, Robert Lopez and Jeff Whitty made you believe in friendship, life after college and the joys of puppet sex.

6. Jesus Hopped the `A’ Train, SF Playhouse — It took a while for Stephen Adly Guirgis’ intense drama to make it to the Bay Area, but the wait was worth it, if only for Berkeley resident Carl Lumbly in the central role of a murderer who may have seen the error of his ways. And note: This is the second SF Playhouse show on the list.

5. Emma, TheatreWorks _ Paul Gordon’s sumptuous, funny and, of course, romantic adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel came marvelously to life as a musical, with a star-making performance by Pleasanton native Lianne Marie Dobbs.

4. Argonautika, Berkeley Repertory Theatre _ Mary Zimmerman’s athletic retelling of the Jason and the Argonauts myth fused beauty and muscle and impeccable storytelling into a grand evening of theater.

3. Which Is More Than I Can Say About Some People, Word for Word — Actually, the second half of Strangers We Know, this stage adaptation of Lorrie Moore’s short story was brilliantly directed by Joel Mullenix and performed by Patricia Silver and Sheila Balter.

2. Man and Superman, California Shakespeare Theater _ This unbelievably vivid version of George Bernard Shaw’s massive existentialist comedy benefited from superior direction by Jonathan Moscone and an impeccable cast headed by Elijah Alexander and Susannah Livingston.

1. The Crowd You’re in With, Magic Theatre _ The team of playwright Rebecca Gilman and director Amy Glazer fused into brilliance with this slice-of-life meditation on why we make the choices we make in our lives. Local luminaries Lorri Holt and Charles Shaw Robinson brought incredible humor and tenderness to their roles, and T. Edward Webster in the lead managed to make ambivalence compelling.

Now it’s your turn. Please post your favorite theater moments of 2007 — no geographical limitations, just good theater.

Review: `The Crowd You’re in With’

Opened Nov. 17, 2007 at the Magic Theatre

Gilman’s Crowd stands out
Four stars Pleasingly provocative

There aren’t many plays, especially new plays, that stick with you days after seeing them.

Rebecca Gilman’s The Crowd You’re in With, which had its world premiere last weekend at San Francisco’s Magic Theatre, is, in many ways, an astonishing play.

It seems so simple and so casual at first. A Chicago couple, Jasper (T. Edward Webster) and his wife, Melinda (Makela Speilman) are hosting a Fourth of July barbecue in the backyard of their building.

Their friends — another married couple, Dan (Kevin Rolston) and Windsong (Allison Jean White), and a single dude, Dwight (Chris Yule) — are coming, as are their older, upstairs neighbors, Karen (Lorri Holt) and Tom (Charles Shaw Robinson), who also happen to be their landlords.

The set, by Erik Flatmo, is your basic backyard: backdoor, stairs, grass, table, chairs, barbecue, etc. The play Proof could take place on this set. It looks real, and that’s key: Gilman is giving us a slice of life, and the more realistic the better.

Jasper and Melinda have been trying for a few months to get pregnant with no luck. Windsong, on the other hand, is in the late stages of her first pregnancy. The child status of the couples is important, because when Tom and Karen arrive (and while Karen makes what appears to be a delicious, fruity sangria with blueberries), we learn that this older couple, both of whom came together after unsuccessful first marriages, decided not to have children.

When the younger couples balk at their choice and imply that their decision is a selfish one, Karen’s calm defense belies the fact that she’s had to go down this road more than a few times. “It’s not like we’re bad people because we don’t want to procreate,’’ she says.

The tone of the cheerful barbecue quickly changes to one of unease and discomfort, especially when the older couple dons the landlord mantle and basically says to Jasper and Melinda that if they have a baby, they have to find another place to live.

The arrival of Dwight (Yule, above) — complete with cheap beer and a slacker attitude — lightens the mood somewhat. His showpiece is a monologue about what it’s like to be a waiter in a fairly nice restaurant when families with young children come in. It’s a great moment, and the mere mention of the word “Cheerios’’ brings a knowing chuckle from the audience.

When the barbecue breaks up, Gilman, paired up for the fourth time with director Amy Glazer, doing some of her best, most detailed work here, gets down to the meat of her drama. Jasper has been well and truly thrown by the afternoon’s events, and as night falls (Kurt Landisman’s transitioning, dusky lighting is gorgeous), he finds himself pondering all of his life’s choices.

Jasper is a bright, somewhat quiet man, and he admits that the idea of living an unexamined life is repellent to him. So he begins examining. Why are Dan, Dwight and Windsong — intelligent enough people but not really astute — his friends? Does he really want to have a child with Melinda? Does he even love her?

The older couple, having left the party when they sensed that their childlessness (“And our bad personalities,’’ as Karen puts it) were ruining the party, return to apologize, and the play deepens into something completely captivating and heartfelt.

Holt (above, with Webster) and Robinson, two veteran local actors, are incredibly good at maneuvering their prickly characters and imbuing them with warmth and intelligence. And Webster rises to their level.

In fact, all of the performances under Glazer’s direction are superb, and the play’s brief 75 minutes fly by but never feel rushed.

In some of her previous plays, Gilman has been sort of a finger-wagger, stirring up issues and hectoring her audience. With The Crowd You’re in With, she gives her audience a jolt, but it’s more like she wants to knock us out of our big, fat American apathy and think — really think — about the choices we make in our lives and why we make them.

The Crowd You’re in With continues through Dec. 9 at the Magic Theatre, Building D, Fort Mason Center, Marina Boulevard at Buchanan Street, San Francisco. Call 415-441-8822 or visit www.magictheatre.org for information.