25 highlights of LA theater in 2014

tartuffe-ds.jpg
Cate Scott Campbell and Steven Epp in South Coast Repertory's 2014 production of Molière's Tartuffe adapted by David Ball. Photo by Debora Robinson/SCR.

I don't believe in year-end Top 10 lists, especially if the components are listed in order of best to, say, tenth best. Why is it necessary to draw such distinctions between creations with very different goals and styles? Are apples really better than oranges -- or is it vice versa?

But I do believe that the ephemeral art of theater deserves an annual recap of the year's highlights. Of the 225 productions in greater LA I saw last year, here are 25 of the best:

Abbamemnon (Troubadour Theater Company at Falcon Theatre). This cockeyed blend of "Agamemnon" and the melodies of Abba had a few unexpectedly somber undertones, but it still was no slacker on the famous Troubie laugh meter, And let's not forget its turn-off-phones pre-show -- one of the wittiest such introductions ever. Photo below

Above the Fold (Pasadena Playhouse). Bernard Weinraub's journalism thriller, inspired by a real-life situation at Duke University, seemed downright prescient later in the year, after Rolling Stone's disputed article about rape at the University of Virginia. Taraji P. Henson was terrific as the buffeted star reporter.

The Behavior of Broadus (Burglars of Hamm/Center Theatre Group/Sacred Fools). May this droll and inventive musical about behaviorism guru John Broadus Watson, who was played by the protean Hugo Armstrong, find a larger venue.

The Country House (Geffen Playhouse). Donald Margulies created a group of Chekhovian characters with unrequited crushes, gathered in the summer-theater-festival of Williamstown, Massachusetts. Blythe Danner and Eric Lange helped wipe away the memory of the similarly set-up but crass and inferior "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike."

Disassembly (Theatre of NOTE). Steve Yockey's farce, set in the world of young Angeleno singles and couples, drifted into darkness before we quite realized what was happening. Thanks to the Hollywood Fringe, I was able to see it -- and enjoy the ride -- twice.

Flare Path (Theatre 40). What was it like for the RAF fliers and their wives during the off-hours of the blitz in 1940? Written during the heat of the war, Terence Rattigan's deft drama took us there, abetted by director Bruce Gray and sound designer Joseph Slowinski.

ABBAMEMNON-ds.jpgFloyd Collins (La Mirada Theatre). The musical about a trapped caver and the media circus that arose around him, by Tina Landau and Adam Guettel, was delineated with painstaking precision by director Richard Israel -- as the audience sat on the stage, within inches of the actors.

Harmony (Center Theatre Group/Ahmanson Theatre). Barry Manilow and Bruce Sussman crafted a compelling musical based on the saga of the Comedian Harmonists -- the German between-the-wars equivalent of a boy band. Shayne Kennon was especially charismatic as the "Rabbi," who survived the longest and ended up in Palm Springs.

Henry V (Pacific Resident Theatre). Director Guillermo Cienfuegos and star Joe McGovern adapted a script from several of Shakespeare's history plays into a complex and powerful tale, with imaginative design and fight choreography.

The Importance of Being Earnest (A Noise Within). Michael Michetti staged a crisply captivating version of Oscar Wilde's classic, with a memorable star turn by Adam Haas Hunter as Algernon, in a dandified outfit designed by Garry Lennon.

Into the Woods. Amanda Dehnert started her Oregon Shakespeare version of the Sondheim/Lapine musical with contemporary dress and scripts on stage (as did Cienfuegos in "Henry V," above). Then she gradually transformed it almost as much as the characters themselves are transformed, only to remind us of our real-life bearings again at the end. A powerfully searching journey.

Knock Me With a Kiss (Robey Theatre at LATC). When the daughter of W.E.B. DuBois married the poet Countee Cullen, it was the highlight of New York's black social calendar, but it didn't last long. Playwright Charles Smith ("Free Man of color") examined what went wrong, and Dwain Perry's staging got everything right.

Luna Gale (Goodman Theatre at Center Theatre Group's Kirk Douglas theatre). Rebecca Gilman turned a tale of a dedicated but flawed social worker (the superb Mary Beth Fisher), who tries to help a newborn and her parents, into a thrilling human chronicle. A refreshing injection of substance into the usual December programming.

Pippin (Broadway tour at Pantages Theatre). By incorporating Gypsy Snider's circus acts so organically into the Schwartz/Hirson musical, director Diane Paulus enhanced its metaphorical content and succeeded in muffling the show's more dated qualities. A revelatory revival.

Premeditation (Latino Theater Company at LATC). Director Jose Luis Valenzuela staged Evelina Fernandez's contemporary, LA-set marital comedy as a sharp but swirling evocation of noir style, with propulsive music and movement. The best show I saw in the Encuentro festival.

Romeo and Juliet (Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles at the VA Japanese Garden). Kenn Sabberton's in-the-round rendition of Shakespeare's play restored intimacy to its alfresco setting. And it moved like, well, two houses on fire, punctuated with doses of vibrant 1920s design and music, supposedly set in LA.

Sovereign Body (Road Theatre Company at Lankershim). As Emilie Beck wrote this tale of a middle-aged restaurant owner facing mortality in Pasadena, she made sure that it was a play, not a TV movie in disguise. Taylor Gilbert's performance was galvanic.

Spring Awakening (Deaf West Theatre at Inner-City Arts). The company's use of ASL awakened Michael Arden's staging of the Sater/Sheik musical with fierce energy and extended its meaning to include a new audience. I've heard rumors that this production might re-open in a larger LA County venue -- may they be true.

The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart (Scottish National Theatre at Broad Stage's Edye). A professor becomes undone at a staid conference in a provincial Scottish town. Wils Wilson's immersive cabaret-style production, in which the actors also provided the magical music, became a rollicking and then a lightly spooky party. David Greig wrote it.

Stupid Fucking Bird (Theatre @ Boston Court). Chekhovian updates were plentiful in 2014, but Aaron Posner's was the most original -- a dazzling treatment of "The Seagull" that shattered the fourth wall in a way that Chekhov might not have liked -- but it certainly amused and moved me.

Tartuffe (A Noise Within, South Coast Repertory). Two of the more professional theater companies offered very different examinations of Moliere's great comedy -- Julia Rodriguez-Elliott's funnier, wilder vision at A Noise Within and Dominique Serrand's chillier, melancholic perspective at South Coast. Two triumphs.

The Twilight of Schlomo (Elephant Theatre). Timothy McNeil ended a trilogy set in his east Hollywood neighborhood with this portrait of a sad-sack comic (Jonathan Goldstein) and his reunion with his adult stepdaughter, who's intrigued by his Jewish roots. Together they face an abusive neighbor. A masterfully moving experience.

The Whipping Man (West Coast Jewish Theatre at Pico Playhouse). A Jewish Confederate soldier and two of his former slaves are huddled together in the ruins of their war-damaged home during Passover. Howard Teichman's introduction of Matthew Lopez's play to LA was a remarkably charged experience.

Zealot (South Coast Repertory). Theresa Rebeck's play, set in Mecca during a present-day hajj, not only extracts crackling drama from diplomacy but also demonstrates the collision between idealism and pragmatism in US/British foreign policy. Marc Masterson directed.


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