Hard Hearts, but a New Year Ahead

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This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

"Is there any cause in nature that makes these hard hearts?"

This line from Act III of Shakespeare's King Lear best sums up 2007 from the perspective of a theatergoer.

The first reason Lear's lament about the cruelty of life continues to ring in my ears is simple: this was a rough theater season. Broadway—and audiences—suffered from the strike that canceled weeks of shows in November. Here in Southern California, there was also a shortage of plays—not because of a strike, but because of the renovation of a major theater, some skimpy programming, and in one instance, the last-minute scuttling of a major LA premiere.

Sarah Jones' one-woman show, titled Bridge and Tunnel, a hit both on Broadway and off, was to play a month-long engagement at the Brentwood Theatre—and its cancellation is an ominous sign that Los Angeles is slipping as a commercial theater town.

This can also be seen in the quality of shows that originated here in Los Angeles and are now going to New York. Previous seasons saw works like The Drowsy Chaperone and Curtains leave Southern California and then go on to win Tony Awards back east. This year's two local productions headed to New York are the lukewarm revival of Come Back, Little Sheba from the Kirk Douglas Theatre and the Valley's long-running but decidedly fluffy, The Marvelous Wonderettes—two shows that will hardly raise LA's national profile.

Really, only one production—not counting the juggernaut Wicked, which seems to have been running for years at the Pantages—inspired LA audiences to race to the theater.

That production was, of course, the Royal Shakespeare Company's King Lear, the other reason that opening line is still ringing in my ears. Ian McKellen's reading of "Is there any cause in nature that makes these hard hearts?" was one of the high points of not just this year, but of the past few years.

What's interesting about that RSC production was the tepid reviews it received both in New York and here in Los Angeles. True, Trevor Nunn's production was long and had a few questionable choices; but most of it was really good—and major productions of King Lear are once-in-a-lifetime events. My suspicion is that as the years pass, recollections of the staging's minor problems will fade and it will be rightly remembered as the high point of LA's 2007 theater season.

Those looking ahead to the Shakespeare event of 2008, pay attention to the Macbeth starring Patrick Stewart. This production got even better reviews in the English press than King Lear and it comes to New York in February. No word on whether it, like Lear, will come to LA after its run in Brooklyn, but for those who can't wait—or who've learned that high profile Shakespeare seats are a better investment than Google stock—tickets go on sale this Wednesday.

Other local productions to look mark your calendar for in 2008:

Starting in late January, the U.S. premiere of Athol Fugard's new play at the Fountain Theatre in Hollywood.

In February, a hip-hop adaptation of Aeschylus at the La Jolla Playhouse titled, The Seven.

In March, at the Old Globe in San Diego: Dancing in the Dark another movie-to-musical adaptation by Douglas Carter Beane, the man behind the surprisingly good Broadway version of Xanadu.

In June, the World Premiere of a new Donald Margulies play at the Geffen Playhouse.

And in September, the renovated Mark Taper Forum re-opens with a new production of John Guare's House of Blue Leaves.

To these and all the shows in 2008: break a leg…and Happy New Year.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.

Photos: Manuel Harlan © RSC 2007