In one sense, The Composer Is Dead has been around for a while. Originally commissioned by the San Francisco Symphony, it debuted at Davies Symphony Hall in 2006 as an orchestral piece with music by local composer Nathaniel Stookey and text and narration by Lemony Snicket, the fiendish children’s author of A Series of Unfortunate Events who lives in San Francisco under the ludicrous alias of Daniel Handler. It has since made the rounds of various symphonies around the country as a humorous Peter and the Wolf-style piece designed to familiarize children with the various instruments in an orchestra, and has also been released as a book and CD.
One hundred and sixty-eight years of Afghan history in seven hours isn’t a bad bargain, even if it’s a heck of a long time to sit in the theater. A much-anticipated import from London’s Tricycle Theatre, The Great Game: Afghanistan tells the story of ill-fated British, Russian and American incursions into that country from 1842 to the present day through twelve half-hour plays by various British playwrights and several shorter monologues and verbatim tidbits from assorted present-day experts. It’s an exhausting undertaking, especially as seen in one marathon viewing on Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Stage, starting at 11:30 a.m. and ending at 10:30 p.m.
Rinne Groff’s play Compulsion is named after another Compulsion, Meyer Levin’s 1956 nonfiction novel based on the murder trial of Leopold and Loeb (later made into a movie with Orson Welles). Although Groff’s play has nothing to do with Leopold and Loeb, the name is appropriate for any number of reasons, not least that it too is a very loosely fictionalized account of a real case–the case of Levin himself.
It’s a good thing that Lisa Kron’s new play has been renamed since its premiere this March at L.A.’s Kirk Douglas Theatre. Down there it was called The Wake, which is misleading because although a funeral is mentioned at one point, it’s not really a major plot point. Now that the world premiere production has come to Berkeley Rep it’s called In the Wake, which may be a bit cryptic but is more apt, as ultimately the play deals with the damage each of us leaves in his or her wake like Godzillas of emotion.
Let’s just get this out of the way at the outset. It’s inevitable that Berkeley Rep’s latest world premiere, Girlfriend, is going to be compared to the one that opened the theater’s season: the Green Day pop-punk opera American Idiot, which opened on Broadway this week to enthusiastic reviews. They’re both new rock musicals based on iconic albums, but while the huge spectacle of American Idiot uses all the songs in order without dialogue and leaves you to glean a vague story between the lyrics and the way the propulsive songs are staged, the much more intimate Girlfriend doesn’t bring some perceived implicit story on Matthew Sweet’s best-known album to life. It’s just the achingly sweet, funny love story of two boys fresh out of high school.
Oy vey, this play. There’s a lot of interesting subject matter in Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s world premiere of Naomi Iizuka’s Concerning Strange Devices from the Distant West about the introduction of photography to Japan in the 1800s, but what we get of that is told rather than illustrated, emerging in expository lectures between characters or direct address. It’s staged by Les Waters with a surfeit of style, but what’s being told isn’t really a story so much as various scenes with Americans in Yokohama in the late 19th and early 21st centuries holding forth on photography or Japanese culture, a bit like a series of blog ruminations converted into dialogue and monologue.
The Bay Area has been fortunate enough to have seen a bit of an Athol Fugard revival in the last couple of years, with Blood Knot at American Conservatory Theater in 2008 and My Children! My Africa! at Marin Theatre Company in ’09. This week Berkeley Repertory Theatre added a new work by the great South African playwright into the mix with the West Coast premiere of 2009′s Coming Home, a sequel to Fugard’s 1995 play Valley Song, which Berkeley Rep produced in 1998 at the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre featuring Anika Noni Rose. (Curiously enough without knowing that, I imagined Rose in the same role at some point while watching Coming Home.)
Top Ten Theater Productions of 2009
Although I started 2009 reviewing theater for one paper and ended the year reviewing for another, when I look over the list of the 108 shows I saw over the course of the year to determine my top ten, I realize that none of my favorite shows are ones that I actually reviewed. Those respective papers have space, money and geographical constraints, and it just happened that there was no overlap between the shows in my review docket and those in this year’s top ten.