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Best of 2018, part 1

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Looking back at the best shows from a year of theatre is always a little strange.  It’s not like KCRW’s list of best albums that you can instantly download and enjoy.  Theatre is ephemeral - you can’t stream it or hit rewind. So reflecting on a year’s productions is less a guide to what you should see, and more an evaluation of where we are as an audience - and maybe a hint of where we’re going.

It’s no surprise that the most striking theatre this year all had political undertones - not capital “P” political but more nuanced politics.  Plays grappled with a profound sense of loss, the passing of an era, and a search for a new order.

The first show on my “Best of 2018” list captured all of that.

Poor Dog Group, an ensemble company born out of CalArts, shared their show “Group Therapy” at CAP UCLA.  Drawn from actual group therapy sessions that the company transcribed, the show was a profound but enigmatic voyeuristic glance at what happens when the promise of a youthful dream confronts the difficulty of life.  It was a show that made the audience work for meaning but if you put in the time it had a quiet profundity.

I wrote back in January that I hoped I didn't just witness the funeral rite for a promising Los Angeles company.  Now, I hope it wasn’t a harbinger for other small theaters in Los Angeles.

Another ensemble company whose work I’ve long admired, Theatre Movement Bazaar, retold the story of the Holy Grail with their signature wit and movement aesthetic.  Their “Grail Project” at Bootleg Theatre had a roundtable filled with knights that look like they just stepped out a 70's disco in open collared shirts. The sound bed underneath a key scene is a loop from the Velvet Underground's "Heroin" and at the culmination of Guinevere and Lancelot's dalliance, Guinevere breaks into a stunning live rendition of Donna Summer's "I Feel Love" while the rest of the cast does a funky disco line dance.  While everything didn’t quite gel in this production, it was thrilling to see a company committed to making work around a shared aesthetic.

Let’s stick with ensembles and travel to the Getty Villa and SITI Company’s production of “The Bacchae.”  From the opening sound cue that had Screaming Jay Hawkin’s “I put a spell on you” echoing through the outdoor amphitheater, it was clear this wasn’t a distant classic retold for exercise.  This “Bacchae” was funny, personal and the latest chapter in the Getty’s surprisingly meaningful mission to bring the Greek and Roman classics a fresh life. As stunning as SITI Company’s work was, it was matched by the Getty’s ability to learn year after year.  I can’t think of another LA theatre company with a clearer mission and a dedication to learn from their own mistakes.

Across town, Open Fist Theatre Company let director Jan Munroe create a deeply wacky and disturbing world with playwright John O’Keefe’s “All Night Long.” I was sold by the blue Jello spit take - because come on, theatre needs more Jello spit-takes - but, again, it was the ensemble of actors that made it one of the year’s best.  They committed to a bizarre world and shifted realities in between breaths. You don’t get to see plays like this, or acting like this in other cities.

Which leads us to Pasadena and Boston Court’s profound production of “Streetcar Named Desire.”  Desean Terry led a racially diverse cast in this powerful re-imagining of Williams’ classic: Stanley was black.  Blanche, like her name, white. There was something disturbingly timely about a production that added race while still honoring the play’s soul.  It was a production that made me uncomfortable in the best ways.

That’s only half my list of this year’s favorites.  Next week the rest.
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Anthony Byrnes