The Best of 2015 – LA Theater

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[BACKSTAGE is a series of posts focusing on the ‘Inside Baseball’ of the theater.]

backstage-with-anthony-byrnesThe top five of my Best of 2015 say a lot about the state of Los Angeles theater (you can hear the rest of my top picks  here).  All five were exquisite, though very different.  If you mapped them, they would span from NoHo to Venice, from Pico to Atwater (with a quick stop downtown for good measure).  That says something about more than just geography.  That so much theater should be happening in such small spaces in our big city is both our blessing and our curse.

Let’s start with the classics.

“The Homecoming” at Pacific Resident Theatre

Following up on his stripped down “Henry V”, director Guillermo Cienfuegos breathed frightening life into Harold Pinter’s classic “The Homecoming.”  The costumes, by Christine Cover-Ferro, instantly gave us a sense of place and time while the production balanced nimbly between our expectations and memory of Pinter and its own powerful voice.  While the cast was spot on, Lesley Fera as the inscrutable Ruth and Jason Downs as the slimy, intimidating Lenny – still feel vivid.

“Uncle Vanya” at Antaeus Theatre Company

This was Antaeus at their best.

The adaptation by Annie Baker was direct, quirky, and fresh while honoring the bones of the original.  Robin Larsen’s direction was direct and crisp and, of course, the ensembles were wonderful.  It’s an odd detail but what I appreciated was having Vanya’s mother in the production (a role often cut).  It was a little touch that added dimension and against the backdrop of the 99-seat/Equity kerfuffle felt terribly impermanent.  Let’s hope I’m wrong.

The challenge for Antaeus, or frankly any company dedicated to the classics, is how to avoid ‘Natural History Theater’ – productions that feel stale from age and more compulsory than timely.  Theater must speak to today, even through the prism of history.  “Uncle Vanya” was a beautiful example of how that’s possible.

“A Permanent Image” at Rogue Machine Theatre

There’s something special about the tiny theater at Rogue Machine.  It’s so intimate and it’s one of those spaces that’s accumulating a powerful sense of place.  That’s only due in small part to it’s compact architecture.  The journeys we’ve been taken on are powerful, lasting.

“A Permanent Image” was one of those journeys.

A simple play by Samuel D. Hunter, “A Permanent Image” took us all home and asked us why we’re here.  A powerful cast led by the cantankerous Anne Gee Byrd had us questioning what our lives really amount to – what will we leave behind?  And why?

“Trevor” at Circle X Theatre Company

It’s hard to argue with Laurie Metcalf and a monkey.

Especially when that monkey, sorry chimp, is imbued with humanity by Jimmi Simpson. “Trevor” could have been little more than a gag: a quirky conceit of a chimp that wants to be an actor.  They could have played it for laughs.  It was so much more than that thanks to its actors and Circle X.

“Man Covets Bird” at 24th Street Theater

Children’s theater?

Yes.  Well, sort of.  No . . . just wonderful theater that could enchant a child and move an adult to tears.  The only tragedy of 24th Street Theater’s productions is that there aren’t more of them and they aren’t running longer.

Their follow-up to “Walking The Tightrope,”  “Man Covets Bird” was a magical journey into the frightening world of button-pushing jobs and losing one’s way.  I can still hear the music and see a blank wall transform into a magical animation.

I wish I could go back.

I wish I could see everyone of these shows again.  What a year . . .

Happy New Year LA Theater – here’s to 2016!