Another year of theater has passed, and I’ve got a cigar box filled with torn ticket stubs. It’s time to reflect on the shows that moved me most to laugh, cry and change my view of the world. I present, once again, my 10 favorite theatrical experiences of the last 12 months.
‘Bondage’ (AlterTheater) Gorgeously written by playwright Star Finch and directed with passionate ingenuity by Elizabeth Carter, this world premiere opened in the spring, but has stuck with me all year long. With surreal, dreamlike staging and lyrical prose that flows like poetry, Finch, Carter and a brilliant cast breathed compelling, compassionate life into the story of an enslaved 13-year-old girl on an island plantation, and her relationship with the childhood friend who is strongly encouraged by relatives to take the role of “owner.” By pleasant happenstance, Bondage is being restaged by AlterTheater Jan. 13–20, at ACT’s Costume Shop Theater in San Francisco. altertheater.org.
‘The Birds’ (Main Stage West) Directed by Elizabeth Craven and stunningly well-acted, Conor McPherson’s eerie and unnerving adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s taut tale of ornithological apocalypse was tense, exciting, terrifying and, at times, sad and beautiful. The chilling sound design by Doug Faxon lets us hear the birds we never see but quickly come to fear as much as the four survivors whose story we watch unfold.
‘In The Heights’ (Santa Rosa Junior College) Lin Manuel Miranda’s joyous celebration of the people who live, love and dream in New York’s Washington Heights was gorgeously and energetically staged by Santa Rosa Junior College. Fueled by hip-hop and dancing, director John Shillington, musical director Janis Wilson and their vast multicultural cast brilliantly presented the North Bay with its best musical
‘Native Son’ (Marin Theatre Company) Nambi E. Kelley’s urgent and elegant adaptation of Richard Wright’s game-changing 1940 novel—which tells the tale of a frustrated, furious Chicago black man on the run from the law and the press who sensationalize his story, and thus unleash a racist rabble—was beautifully told in this shattering MTC production, viscerally directed by Seret Scott.
‘Peerless’ (Marin Theatre Company) A little bit Macbeth, a little bit Hunger Games, this wicked satire by Jihae Park skewers America’s current dog-eat-dog academic system. Directed with dizzying razzle-dazzle and breathless pace by Margot Bordelon, it easily ranks as one of the year’s most savagely unforgettable plays.
‘You Got Older’ (Left Edge Theatre) Claire Barron’s drama about growing up in a kooky family, directed with breezy warmth by Argo Thompson, was weird but wonderful, kinky but kind, with an ending that was as lump-in-the-throat breathtaking as it was sweetly satisfying.
‘Paggliaci’ (Cinnabar Theater) Ruggero Leoncavallo’s operatic tragedy about infidelity and jealousy among a troupe of clowns, directed with aplomb by Elly Lichenstein, was paired with an immaculately staged silent clown–comedy presented by Clowns on a Stick. The first was beautifully sung and the second was drop-dead hilarious—an unlikely but effective pairing that demonstrates Cinnabar’s ongoing commitment to opera and to shaking things up now and then.
‘Little Women’ (Spreckels Theatre Company) Spreckels’ delightful musical adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s classic tale of the March sisters was charmingly staged with musical simplicity (a piano, a cello and a violin) and a huge amount of humanity and warmth, generously supplied by director Michael Ross, musical director Lucas Sherman and a strong cast powered by first-rate voices.
‘Becky’s New Car’ (Sonoma Arts Live) Steven Dietz’s fresh and funny comedy about a woman suffering a midlife crisis—the kind usually only talked about when men are doing it—was given a gregarious and highly entertaining production
courtesy of director Carl Jordan and a coy cast who knew how to play against expectations for
maximum comedic impact. A
‘The Odd Couple’ (Cinnabar Theater) Neil Simon’s classic classic comedy was up-to-date and as funny as ever in director Jennifer King’s sprightly and open-hearted production. I’ve seen this show half a dozen times, and have never enjoyed it as much as here, with a stellar cast giving some of the best ensemble work of the year. This is how to make an old play seem new again.