Last week I started looking back at the theatre in LA that made a difference in 2018. This week I round out that list with the kind of work I hope fills theaters in 2019.
Echo Theatre Company is on a fierce journey. They’re choosing plays that are consistently challenging and all have a deep conscious. It’s telling that, among LA’s theatre companies - that’s becoming a rare commodity.
Two of their shows stayed with me this year, “Cry it Out” and “Gloria.”
Playwright Molly Smith Metzler’s “Cry It Out,” starts out as a well-observed funny portrait of the trials of a new moms. Feeling like you’re a prisoner to “nap time”, sleepless nights and isolation from the world. But under the surface is a more complicated play tackling the issues of class and privilege that surround who’s really going to raise your children. For any parent, it’s a profound question.
“Gloria” by Branden Jacob Jenkins starts out as a biting, sarcastic office play. You’re in the cubicles of some New Yorker-esque magazine in New York with witty 20-somethings. Mr. Jenkins lulls us into the familiar only to destroy it with gun violence. But the play doesn’t stop there, with the sensational - it becomes a commentary on how we process tragedy - both commercially and personally. And, as with all of Mr. Jenkins plays, lurking in the background - mostly through silent omission - is race.
The body of work that Echo is building is substantial. If you wanted to pick one small theatre to add to your cultural roster - Echo is a consistent favorite.
Now to two works that stole the year - Jefferson Mays “A Christmas Carol” and Taylor Macs “24 Decade History of Popular Music.”
Let’s start with Scrooge - I hate sacharine “Christmas Carols.” Typically over-sentiment and oddly hollow, most Scrooges feel like little more than a foil to sell you a gift card.
Jefferson Mays changed all that at the Geffen. He made Dickens classic a chilling, dark ghost story and Scrooge a strangely relatable character who’s holiday epiphany feels earned rather than inevitable. Mr. Mays performance was extraordinary and the stage design that surrounded him brilliant. More than just a holiday show - it was one of the year’s very best.
It’ll also be a fascinating test for LA theatre next year. The Geffen Playhouse had the chutzpah to produce this piece and pull off all the technical wizardry to make the stage so mercurial. The question is will this “Christmas Carol” become an LA holiday staple? Or will it be a shipped, gift wrapped to New York next year. It’ll be a test of the Geffen’s clout and standing. Fingers crossed but not holding my breath.
Which leaves us with nothing but a drag queen.
That’s the biggest understatement of the year, Taylor Mac’s “24 Decade History of Popular Music” is one of the great works of the American theatre. And Los Angeles has Kristy Edmunds and the Center of the Art of Performance to thank for the wisdom to share it with Los Angeles. For 24 hours across 4 nights, lucky Angeleno’s followed Taylor Mac through 24 decades of songs reconfiguring our notion of our shared history, exposing the inequities, and feeling deeply uncomfortable in all the best ways. I’ve never seen an audience of strangers turned into a collective more masterfully. We all left the theater with souls bigger than we walked in with.
That’s a gift… and what all theater should aspire to. Here’s hoping the New Year brings bigger souls for us all.