Theatrical undertakings are a little like cats and dogs. Some are just a whole lot easier to love than others.
Here are the shows I loved the most from the 87 I saw last year, my own personal top ten torn tickets of 2015.
1. The Convert (Marin Theater Company) Danai Gurira’s magnificently intimate epic about racial and spiritual clashes in colonial Africa exceeded expectations by balancing humane humor with scathing observations about the relationship between religion and power. Brilliantly directed by Jasson Minadakis, with a gorgeously crafted, heartbreaking performance by Katherine Renee Turner, the story of an African convert to Christianity—and how her faith dropped her into a battle between her culture and country—The Convert not only achieved Bay Area theater perfection, it transcended it.
2. Yesterday Again (6th Street Playhouse/Lucky Penny Productions) Few North Bay shows this year generated the buzz produced by Dezi Gallegos’ ambitious exploration of how our choices in the present set the course for what happens in the future. Directed with power and grace by Sheri Lee Miller (between rounds of chemo), the script might have been guilty of overreaching, but with stunning insights and a fully committed cast (including a career-best performance by Craig Miller), this shaggy-dog story was easily one of the most rewarding and unforgettable productions of the year.
3. The Amen Corner (Marin AlterTheatre) James Baldwin’s 1954 play about personal choices and social politics within a small storefront church in Harlem was staged by AlterTheatre in a cramped corner of a San Rafael fitness center—and it worked. Directed by Jeanette Harrison, with a riveting lead performance by Cathleen Riddley as the strong-willed Sister Margaret, whose congregation is plotting to oust her, The Amen Corner, with rousing gospel songs to underscore the drama, was—like a good sermon—deeply moving, beautifully told and not easy to shake off.
4. The Light in the Piazza (Spreckels Theatre Company) In stripping its orchestra down to a tight chamber ensemble, simultaneously recruiting stellar voices from beyond the recognizable North Bay usual suspects, director Gene Abravaya tackled a complex musical and carried it off with charm, simplicity and obvious love—and the feeling was infectious.
5. Clybourne Park (6th Street Playhouse) In Bruce Norris’ cheeky, dark-comedy spinoff of Lorraine Hansberry’s Raisin in the Sun, racial tensions in the ’50s contrast with similar struggles today. Under Carl Jordan’s sensitively probing direction, a strong cast delivered the goods, uncomfortably at times, but without losing touch with the script’s brutally funny, sharply satirical intensions.
6. Choir Boy (Marin Theatre Company) There was a lot of conversation when director Kent Gash’s visually stunning and emotionally devastating staging of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s Choir Boy opened at Marin Theatre Company. The main topics were the show’s male nudity and it’s drop-dead gorgeous a cappella gospel harmonies, but the real reason to see the play—the story of a young, black gay man struggling to be accepted at a prestigious African American boy’s school—was the script’s achingly honest heart.
7. Arcadia (Cinnabar Theater) Tom Stoppard’s time-bending drama about math, poetry, murder, love and one long-buried mystery, was staged by director Sheri Lee Miller as a kind of love letter to eccentricity and human desire to achieve something beautiful. In the process, that’s exactly what it achieved.
8. Assassins (Narrow Way Stage Company) Stephen Sondheim’s powerfully patriotic pastiche about history’s motley collection of true-life presidential assassins, all swapping stories and songs about their crimes, was richly staged by co-directors Trevor Hoffman and Skylar Evans as part of Sonoma Arts Live. Well cast, strongly performed and endlessly entertaining, this was one of the best musicals of the year.
9. The North Plan (Main Stage West) The thing about Jason Wells’ North Plan—set in a rural jail during a right-wing takeover of America—was that its anything-goes storytelling was as loopy as its characters, and just as entertaining. Directed by Rick Eldridge with an emphasis on rising menace and tension, it didn’t always work, but it packed a weird, wacky wallop, one gut-punch at a time.
10. Taming of the Shrew (Curtain Theater) Shakespeare’s famous battle of the sexes, staged outdoors by Marin’s Curtain Theatre, and directed by Carl Jordan, was adorably cheerful, colorful, strange and wonderful. Melissa Claire and Alan Coyne were so good as Kate and Petruchio, the play was a love letter to love, an examination of how complex, damaged people learn to tempt, tame and talk to each other. It was also laugh-out-loud hilarious.