Thursday, December 31, 2009

Top Ten Theatrical Events of 2009

Although this was a tough year economically, it was a wonderful year in so many other ways. We ended the Bush era, my daughter embarked on the first part of her journey to adulthood by going off to college in Maryland, and I got to attend another 70 or so theatrical events of one sort or another: plays, musicals, comedy, cabaret performances, concerts. Some were simply dreadful (I support community theater, but I don't often like it), most of them were enjoyable on one level or another, but a few were truly magical. At least to me. At least on those nights.

In alphabetical order, here are the ten best things I saw this year:

"American Idiot" at Berkeley Rep, Berkeley
This punk rock tone poem -- now on its way to Broadway -- is an evocation of teen disaffection and confusion in the context of a world saturated with millions of conflicting political and media messages.

It's a bit dark and depressing, but that's rather hard to avoid when one of the key themes is “Nobody likes you. Everyone left you. They’re all out without you, having fun.” But “American Idiot” is also a brilliant, explosive, heartfelt work of art. The music is amazing and the onstage band rocks every corner of the house. The story’s a bit thin, but the show’s not about story – it’s about emotion.

"The Floating Lightbulb" at A Traveling Jewish Theater, San Francisco
The Traveling Jewish Theater has changed its name. Since they found a permanent home, it's now just The Jewish Theater. But that doesn't change the fact that they wandered into a terrific production of Woody Allen's play about a young Jewish boy who wants to be a magician. Most really talented actors don't hang around San Francisco too much, they head off to LA or New York because that's where the work is. But a few can't leave the Bay Area, and several of them were in this production.

"God of Carnage" at the Jacobs Theater, New York
"God of Carnage" is one of those shows where you rather despise the characters as people, but love them as characters because they entertain. What's great about the play by Yasmina Reza is how the constrictions of the theater help lay bare the insecurities of the characters. How it puts their bravado on display, revealing a terrible lack of courage.

Although it sounds grim, it's actually quite funny. Hard to imagine how you can milk laughs out of lines like "Every word that comes out of your mouth is destroying me!", but "God of Carnage" manages it.

Jake Johannsen at Cobb's Comedy Club, San Francisco
A lifetime ago, I tried my hand at stand-up comedy. So did Jake Johannsen. In fact, we did our first open mic night sets on the same night. I lasted about a year in comedy, while Jake has gone on to have a solid career. (In fact, his new Showtime special, "I Love You," premieres tonight.) Way back then I saw that Jake had a special talent that I lacked. And every time I've seen him on stage, he's proved me right. I don't know why he hasn't broken into the big big time. Maybe his work is just too smart and too sharp for a mass audience to really "get."

I'm not saying this because Jake and I are still friends of a sort, but because I think it's true: Jake Johannsen is the best, most inventive stand-up comedian working today.

Marilyn Maye at The Rrazz Room, San Francisco
She's a bit old-fashioned, but Marilyn Maye's show at The Rrazz Room was so warm-hearted, so honest and genuine that it swept away all my desire for novelty and hipness. From the moment she walked on stage in her Bob Mackie outfit, she did what an entertainer is supposed to do: entertain. Great songs, great stories and a love for her audience that is palpable combined to make this a very special evening.

"Next to Normal" at the Booth Theater, New York
Although "Next to Normal" is ostensibly about how a family copes with a mother who suffers from bipolar disorder with delusions, it's also about the condition of being human. It's about how we connect -- or not -- with our fellow beings. It's about what we give up in order to grow, and how we grow up by giving. It's about the fragility of love, the tenacity of biology, the frustration of not getting what you want -- and the perils inherent in getting it.

But what may be most brilliant about this show may be that it's about whatever is most important to you right now. And isn't that what makes art, art?

"Our Town" at the Barrow Street Theater, New York
In making art we attempt to expand or compress time or reality -- or both -- in order to make clearer to ourselves and others some aspect of existence. To make some part of the human condition more accessible.

The production of Thornton Wilder's "Our Town" at the Barrow Street Theater is one of those rare works of art that is scaled just right. Time and reality are expanded and compressed just the right amount in just the right ways to create an experience that is both the epitome of the theatrical experience and something I've never really felt before in a theater. The boundary between audience and players are blurred throughout - and occasionally erased almost completely.

What both director David Cromer and Thorton Wilder have succeeded in doing in this specific instance of art is to remind us of our common humanity. Grover's Corners is, in fact, our town. It is our earth, our existence. It is what we all share -- and it is both mundane and magical, ordinary and awe-inspiring. Often at the same time.

Steely Dan at The Masonic Auditorium, San Francisco
One of my favorite bands of all time, and one of the few I'd never seen perform live -- mostly because for most of their career they never performed live, preferring to concentrate their efforts in the studio. Now, more than 30 years after their initial success, they occasionally go on the road. On the night I saw them, they performed -- in order -- the entire "Royal Scam" album, which is probably my favorite Steely Dan record, then went on to play a whole other set of songs from the rest of their oeuvre. I knew all the words, danced in the aisles like a teenager and generally had a terrific time.

"A Streetcar Named Desire" at the Intiman Theater, Seattle
A beautifully staged, beautifully acted production gave me an appreciation for this masterpiece that I'd never gotten from the movie version.

"Why Torture is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them" at The Public Theatre, New York
It's not really about torture. It's about reconciliation. It's about the desire to take back your bad decisions and make things right again. But since it's written by Christopher Durang, it goes at these serious issues in a relatively absurd, outlandish, biting, and frequently brilliant fashion.

One of the main characters, Leonard, is an arch-conservative who obsessively toes all the standard lines. He's like one of the suits in a Tom Tomorrow cartoon: spouting the justifications of the Limbaugh dittoheads with such unashamed fervor that it lays bare the ridiculousness of their positions.

This is satire that cuts so cleanly that it takes a while to realize you're up to your ankles in blood.

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