The best of LA theater 2016, part 2

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Last week, I shared the first five of my top LA theater picks for 2016, here’s the second half.

I’m not sure how to fit 36 plays into a top 10 list but there’s no way for me not to mention Forced Entertainment’s “Complete Works: Table Top Shakespeare” at UCLA’s Center for the Art of Performance. Across six days last week, this 30-year-old company from Sheffield, England told the story of 36 of Shakespeare’s plays. An actor sits at a table, grabs the kind of things that clutter a pantry shelf or a junk drawer, and launches into an hour long telling of the tale.

I’m a sucker for durational works (I could see Elevator Repair Service’s Gatz once a year) so Forced Entertainment’s week long engagement was heaven. Hiding copious technique inside of a seemingly simple form (a bit like a minimalist sculpture) each play was a condensed and concentrated journey into one of Shakespeare’s stories. Taken together, the voyage became even more profound. The plays began to speak to one another, constellations of meaning emerged, but more importantly I could feel my listening change. The very tempo of my body gave over to the plays after five hours. The repetition and ritual became as reassuring as the words themselves. In the age of constant updates, slowing down to listen felt like a precious gift.

Looking back, it’s a pleasant surprise that the rest of my favorite moments happened in Center Theater Group’s three theaters (the Mark Taper Forum, the Ahmanson, and the Kirk Douglas Theater). In a year where we lost Gordon Davidson, the founding artistic director who forged Center Theater Group’s theatrical conscience and put LA theater on the map, that these theaters are finally rediscovering their voice. Given the challenges that LA’s intimate theaters are facing, it will be essential for Los Angeles’ cultural infrastructure the CTG regain its purpose and leadership. Let’s hope these four plays are only the beginning.

At the Ahmanson, Ivo Van Hove’s “A View from the Bridge” stripped the play down to its elemental core. Played on a gloriously simple, minimalist set that trapped the characters as if in a fishbowl, the production succeeded in being both intimate and operatic. I quibbled with the choice of theater (I still think this is a production that would have been even better suited for the thrust stage of the Mark Taper Forum) but this was a play that Los Angeles needed to see.

Ayad Akhtar’s “Disgraced” was a mixture of the familiar and, for the American Theater at least, the radical and exotic. It’s the kind of play that makes a regional theater audience feel comfortable. What made it an essential play, worthy of its Pulitzer and greater accolades, is it’s also a play that makes you profoundly uncomfortable.

On the surface that discomfort may come from the prominence of Islam. The play wastes no time diving into the religious doctrine, the artistic inheritance, the familial history of Muslims.

Dig deeper and this isn’t really a play about Islam . . . or not just Islam. At its core it’s play about cultural appropriation, about strict hierarchies both religious and secular, about what it means to be true to yourself and what it means to be disgraced. Across the play’s taut 90 minutes we find ourselves identifying and sympathizing with a white woman, a Jew, a black attorney, an apostate, and possibly even a newly radicalized Muslim. Thanks to brilliant casting and superb acting across the entire ensemble – we also find ourselves loathing every one of the characters in turn.

That’s the unique and essential gift of the theater: to both listen and imagine the plight and motivations of others. To experience the world through another’s eyes and, if you’re lucky, see the world a little differently after you leave the theater.

“Disgraced” was a play to argue over and that’s essential right now.

It was not shocking that the Taper’s production of Suzan-Lori Parks’ “Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1, 2, and 3)” was a great play, what was shocking is how quickly Suzan-Lori Parks’ play took you there. Minutes into the play her poetry, her language, and a remarkably committed and talented cast transported you to a different time and place that’s as familiar as a Greek tragedy and as foreign as our own country’s past. There were the characters named for the ancient Greeks (Homer, Ulysses, Hero, a dog named Odyssey) but there were also the terribly modern Crocs on one actor’s feet. They were walking through the present as they told this story of the past. And in ways I could not even comprehend back in April, a story of our present.

As haunting as it was then, post-election the Colonel’s proud proclamation, “I am grateful every day that God made me white” seems anything but ancient history.

Which leads us to the election, our president-elect and the tragically poignant world premiere at the Kirk Douglas Theater of “Vicuña.” John Robbin Baitz’ play was stunning. Yes, for its prescience and insight into Donald Trump and what was about to happen at the ballot box in our heartland, but also for how the play was changed from one week to the next. I dismissed the play as a pandering comic footnote on opening night before the election. Returning a week later, with a country so profoundly changed and the Trump era having just begun, the play was a profound and terrifying warning that we somehow didn’t listen to or understand.

Center Theater Group and artistic director Michael Ritchie deserve rich praise for committing to “Vicuña.” Let’s hope that bold commitment and the productions that filled CTG’s stages over the last year is a signal of the work to come. Los Angeles needs it.

Happy theatrical New Year!