Boy, this was a hard year to reduce to a Top Ten. When I look over the list of the 117 shows I attended in 2012, eight strike me as shoo-ins for the list, and then there are fifteen other shows vying for the remaining two slots. Mind you, that’s a good problem to have; there really was a lot of good theater in the Bay Area this year—and, of course, some so-so and not very good theater as well. And of course there’s not any inherent virtue in the vast theaterscape of 2012 being reducible to a list in the first place, so maybe I should quit my kvetching, suck it up, and get to it. Although I’m restricting myself to ten, these shows aren’t ranked or numbered and are listed in chronological order.
Humor Abuse, American Conservatory Theater.
American Conservatory Theater started the year off right with Lorenzo Pisoni’s superb one-man show about growing up in the circus. The show’s January run was such a hit that ACT brought it back in August for a two-week reprise to kick off the current season. I myself grew up watching Pisoni run around in a tiny gorilla suit in the Pickle Family Circus when I was a kid, and as he recounted clowning bits that his dad Larry Pisoni used to perform, it was astounding how well I remembered them and how uncannily Lorenzo recreated them. His story about his relationship with his dad and the circus is poignant and often hilarious, and his clowning skills are so sharp that it really shows that he was born into it.
Little Brother, Custom Made Theatre Co.
Writer-director Josh Costello’s adaptation of Cory Doctorow’s novel blew me away when I saw it last January. Little Brother lays out the eerily familiar scenario of a crackdown on civil rights following a terrorist attack on a public structure, but this time the San Francisco Bay Bridge has been blown up and innocent American teens are being detained and interrogated, and it’s up to a group of teenage hackers to fight Big Brother. Costello’s dynamic three-person staging for Custom Made brought it all to life in a dynamic and inventive way, and I loved it so much that I decided to publish the play in the January/February issue of Theatre Bay Area magazine, which comes out this week.
The Waiting Period, The Marsh.
After his smash hit Not a Genuine Black Man, the longest-running solo show in San Francisco history, Brian Copeland’s follow-up couldn’t have a darker topic. The Waiting Period is about dealing with crushing depression, and the title refers to the ten-day waiting period required to buy the gun he’s eyeing to possibly do himself in. So it’s no surprise that it’s a melancholy and thought-provoking piece with a lot of straight talk about what’s unhelpful to hear when you’re in that state of mind, but what is a surprise is how funny it is. Coming back in January for a limited time, it’s a stunning piece of work that’s tremendously valuable for anyone grappling with depression or who knows anyone who is.
Any Given Day, Magic Theatre.
This is the only show on the list that I didn’t review at the time, because it was a short run and I was crazy busy at the time. Told in two finely crafted, interlinked vignettes, Scottish playwright Linda McLean’s Any Given Day packed a huge wallop in its US premiere, in part because the play thwarts any expectation that things will come to a satisfying resolution—not because it feels unfinished but because McLean is toying with you. Jon Tracy gave the play a stunning staging at Magic Theatre with a knockout cast. Amy Kossow and Christopher McHale make charming childlike banter as a fragile shut-in and her patient caretaker, and James Carpenter and Stacy Ross do a bittersweet dance of flirtation between mature adults who could use a good day. It’s funny and sad, brutal and sweet, touching and gut-wrenching and gives ample reason to look forward to McLean and Tracy being reunited at Shotgun Players next fall with Strangers, Babies.
Spunk, California Shakespeare Theater.
Cal Shakes’s first African-American-themed show was a triumph, as George C. Wolfe’s stage adaptation of three Zora Neale Hurston stories about the lives of abused rural laundresses and penniless Harlem pimps was given a dynamic, sumptuous production helmed by Patricia McGregor. A dynamite ensemble cast headed by L. Peter Callender and Margo Hall wove in and out of the vignettes fluidly, with jubilant bluesy musical interludes in between.
Precious Little, Shotgun Players.
A 42-year-old lesbian linguistics professor grapples with possible complications of a pregnancy,interviews the last native speaker of a forgotten Eastern European language, and feels a strange kinship with a stoic gorilla in a zoo in Madeleine George’s fascinating play, which is ultimately about language more than anything. Marissa Wolf’s staging for Shotgun was pitch-perfect, ably performed by the tight ensemble of Nancy Carlin, Zehra Berkman, and Rami Margron.
Chinglish, Berkeley Repertory Theatre.
David Henry Hwang’s latest play is also very much about language, taking the perils of mistranslation between American and Chinese businesspeople as a jumping-off point to explore much deeper divergent attitudes about business and personal relationships. And it’s all in a marvelously funny story about a hapless American signmaker trying to make inroads in a Chinese bureaucracy he can hardly fathom, with scene changes that earned applause in themselves.
Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, SF Playhouse.
The San Francisco Playhouse kicked off its new season with posh new digs at the former Post Street Theatre and with this emo rock musical about the seventh president of the United States. With propulsive, often hilarious songs by Michael Friedman, the show depicted Old Hickory as a stubborn by indecisive rock star whose rise to power was largely out of spite for the “doily-wearing motherfuckers” who snubbed him, and director Jon Tracy and a dynamic ensemble doubling as the band rocked the hell out of it.
The Hundred Flowers Project, Crowded Fire Theater and the Playwrights Foundation.
Christopher Chen’s new play is a masterpiece of metatheatricality, in which a collaboratively developed theater piece about Mao’s cultural revolution takes on a life of its own, its needs overriding and overwriting the lives of the collaborators. Crowded Fire and the Playwrights Foundation’s world premiere under the director of Desdemona Chiang wove a spell that was dizzying and tremendously entertaining as things quickly spiraled out of control and far, far beyond.
Woyzeck, Shotgun Players.
So much came together to make this musical version of Georg Büchner’s classic Woyzeck a spellbinding assault for the senses: Büchner’s oddball fragmentary text in a compelling 2000 reinterpretation by Robert Wilson, director Mark Jackson’s knack for creating strong visual tableaux, slightly crazed performances from a strong cast, and most of all brawny junkyard cabaret songs by Tom Waits that made for the strongest score of a musical all year—and there have been some good ones.
I should point out that a number of theaters were doing terrific work all year: San Francisco Playhouse, Berkeley Rep, Cutting Ball Theater, Marin Theatre Company, Shotgun Players and ACT all had multiple shows on my not-so-short short list, and most of them also had other shows that I thought were quite good but hadn’t quite considered as contenders per se.
East Coast playwright Annie Baker had a hell of a year on Bay Area stages, making her local debut with a one-two-three punch of Body Awareness at Aurora Theatre Company, The Aliens at SF Playhouse, and Circle Mirror Transformation at Marin Theatre Company. Even Precious Little was written by a playwright who used to babysit Baker, or so I’m told.
But for my MVP for the year, I’m going to have to go with:
MVP: Nina Ball
Set designer Nina Ball seems to have been working everywhere this year, and that’s always been good news. She created the chic upper-middle-class digs of God of Carnage at Marin Theatre Company; the towering dome of girders of SF Playhouse’s Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson; the heap of crates and sandbags of Salomania and the flashy wrestling ring of The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity at Aurora; and the handsome colonial church of God’s Plot, the faded elegance of The Coast of Utopia: Voyage, the sinister carny gazebo of Assassins and the dingy faux concrete walls and puddly floors of Woyzeck at Shotgun. And that’s not even getting into the shows I didn’t catch, like Period of Adjustment and My Fair Lady at SF Playhouse, Rumors and The Underpants at Center REPertory Company, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and Pirates of Penzance at Berkeley Playhouse; and Sweeney Todd at Napa Valley Conservatory Theatre. Married to director Jon Tracy since last year, Ball has been doing terrific work since she splashed upon the scene in 2009, and it’s no wonder she seems to be so in demand.