It’s a remarkable coincidence: In the last couple of weeks both Berkeley Repertory Theatre and American Conservatory Theater have opened plays about sons grappling with their memories of their fathers, both prominent Bay Area figures of the 1970s. Ghost Light at Berkeley Rep is a fictionalized play based on California Shakespeare Theater artistic director Jonathan Moscone contending with the specter of his father, the assassinated San Francisco mayor George Moscone. Humor Abuse is Lorenzo Pisoni’s one-man show about growing up as a baby clown in San Francisco’s Pickle Family Circus under the unrelenting tutelage of his father, Pickles founder and clown Larry Pisoni (who thankfully is still around and was in the audience opening night).
It’s a good problem to have: Looking over the list of the 118 local shows I saw this year, I had a hard time narrowing it down to a Top Ten. There are plenty of ways in which 2011 was a tough, lousy, no-good year, but in terms of what I saw on the Bay Area stage, it was pretty damn good. It was a great year for solo shows, between the Marsh (Marga Gomez’s Not Getting Any Younger, Don Reed’s The Kipling Hotel and Geoff Hoyle’s Geezer) and Berkeley Rep (Mike Daisey’s The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs and The Last Cargo Cult, Anna Deavere Smith’s Let Me Down Easy and Rita Moreno’s Rita Moreno: Life Without Makeup). There were a couple of great visiting performances by screen stars: Kevin Spacey as Richard III, John Malkovich as mass murderer Jack Unterweger. And there were any number of other shows that thoroughly charmed me in one respect or another but didn’t quite crack the Top Ten: Crowded Fire and Asian American Theatre Company’s Songs of the Dragons Crying to Heaven, Sleepwalkers Theatre’s The Nature Line, Shotgun Players’ Beardo and Care of Trees, Impact’s Disassembly, SF Playhouse’s Tigers Be Still. As for what did make it onto the list, I tried to rank them in order of preference, but no matter how many times I tweak it the ranking feels arbitrary. So let’s say that, like one’s own children, I love them all equally, and just hope they buy that.
“You know, for a feminist folk tale, this book isn’t half bad.” It’s the devil who says that in The Wild Bride at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, but in this case he’s not steering you wrong. The only misleading thing is that he understates the case.
Playwright Bill Cain has explored Shakespeare and the Gunpowder Plot in his hit play Equivocation and Iraq War atrocities in 9 Circles, both at Marin Theatre Company last year (and Circles is also playing now at San Jose’s Renegade Theatre Experiment), but his world premiere at Berkeley Repertory Theatre is more nakedly personal. How to Write a New Book for the Bible is a beautifully touching account of his mother Mary dying of cancer, in a strong staging by Kent Nicholson with an entirely nonlocal cast. Cain’s narrative device for the play is as if he, the author, is just making it up as he goes along, with his family members occasionally chiding him from inside the story that he’s not telling it right. “Just don’t make me foolish, Billy,” Mary tells the playwright. “It wouldn’t be fair.”
Berkeley resident Rita Moreno is a bona-fide show business legend, one of the first people to win an Oscar, an Emmy, a Grammy and a Tony award. She’ll be 80 in December, but boy, you wouldn’t know it from her performance in her autobiographical show at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Rita Moreno: Life Without Makeup. The play was postponed from June to give Moreno time to recover from knee-replacement surgery, which has slowed down her dancing somewhat, but her energy and stage presence.
The luminous playwright Sarah Ruhl has been a frequent visitor to the Bay Area, and to Berkeley Repertory Theatre in particular, where director Les Waters helmed her breathtaking Eurydice and Glickman Award-winning In the Next Room (or the vibrator play), which went on to become her Broadway debut. Now, just as Actors Ensemble of Berkeley is giving her mammoth Passion Play its belated West Coast premiere across town, Ruhl and Waters are reunited at Berkeley Rep with Ruhl’s new version of Anton Chekhov’s 1901 classic Three Sisters.
Suddenly there’s a small Lynn Nottage festival going on in the Bay Area, with two of the acclaimed contemporary playwright’s works running simultaneously on two sides of the bay: Ruined at Berkeley Repertory Theatre and the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre’s production of Fabulation, or The Re-Education of Undine at Fort Mason’s Southside Theater (across the hall from, and formerly part of, Magic Theatre).
The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs is viral entertainment. Mike Daisey’s monologue is a marvelously entertaining, at times tremendously funny reflection on Apple culture, but along the way it delivers a payload of information that it would be easier and more comforting not to know but that you cannot, and must not, unhear.
New York-based monologist Mike Daisey has been a frequent visitor to Berkeley Rep with his one-man shows 21 Dog Years: Doing Time @ Amazon.com, The Ugly American, and Great Men of Genius—the last of which was actually four different monologues that he performed in repertory. Now he’s back with two new pieces that he also performs in repertory, although not two a night like last time around. The first of them, The Last Cargo Cult, opened last week, and it runs in repertory with The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs
Here we are pretty much back where we started on this blog, with my Top Ten list of my favorite shows for the year. It was awfully hard to whittle the 126 shows I saw this year in the Bay Area down to ten, which is probably a good sign: that’s a far better problem to have than not being able to think of ten good ones. I limited myself to shows that actually opened in 2010, which disqualifies shows like Ann Randolph’s hilarious monologue Loveland that otherwise would be high on my list. Most links are to my original reviews earlier in the year, and the shows are more or less in order of preference.