The best of LA theater 2016

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Okay, here’s my top ten list for theater in 2016 or maybe said better, here’s the theater that made a mark in LA this year.

Let’s start with a solo show at the Geffen, Will Eno’s “Thom Paine (based on nothing).”
Rainn Wilson brought the show to life with a stunning performance about expectation. It’s about what we expect from the theater and what we expect from life. Wilson deftly pivoted between attracting and repelling the audience with subtle technique and dark humor. In retrospect, it’s seems painfully fitting to have begun the year with a show that so directly challenged our expectations.

“Dry Land” by Ruby Rae Spiegel at the Echo Theatre Company tackled the painful and messy realities of an unwanted teen pregnancy. Beautifully directed by Alana Dietze with a powerful ensemble, “Dry Land” was more proof the Echo Theater Company isn’t scared of tough protagonists. It was one of the most challenging plays of the year that committed to an idea and saw it through in all its messiness and power. It took responsibility for everything it brought to the stage. It’s not a play for everyone, but it was a play that I can’t forget.

Sticking with the political, Rogue Machine produced two shows that dealt with idea of cultural appropriation in two entirely different modes. “Honky,” Greg Kalleres’ play is ostensibly about a sneaker. Darkly satirical, it found laughs in the hypocrisy of marketing inner-city authenticity to the white suburbs. Then their next play “Dutch Masters” found riveting drama in two young men separated by color but joined by a common history. Here the appropriation was deeper, more personal. Both productions were beautifully acted and directed and together they offered audiences a chance to revisit an idea from different sides, in different plays. That’s something that happens too rarely in LA theater and another reason Rogue Machine is an essential LA company.

“The Day Shall Declare It” created by Annie Saunders and her company Wilderness transformed an empty warehouse on the edge of downtown into a hidden speakeasy filled with a remarkable layering of the words of Tennessee Williams and the interviews of Studs Terkel. In this immersive piece that told the stories of people trying to make a buck and find a connection, an audience could weave their own way through the both the space and the narrative. This is a show I wish was still open. Each time I saw this show a different story revealed itself. I found different resonances, followed different ideas. That’s the kind of dense complicated storytelling our world needs. It was also one of a series of “downtown” pieces that are starting to define an aesthetic around found spaces, multiple disciplines, and challenging narrative structures. That’s exciting and I can’t wait for the next one.

Next week, the rest of my top ten list with a couple surprises from our larger theaters.