20 highlights of LA theater in 2015

the-christians-ctg.jpgLinda Powell and Andrew Garman in "The Christians" at the Center Theatre Group/Mark Taper Forum. Photo by Craig Schwartz.

Let's begin my discussion of the theatrical highlights of 2015 with...Center Theatre Group?

Yes, that's the same CTG, aka "L.A.'s Theatre Company," that I frequently chide for its dearth of productions set in LA, or plays by LA writers. No, as far as I know, CTG's artistic director Michael Ritchie hasn't suddenly decided to commit to producing at least one LA-set and LA-written play in each of his three theaters each season - but that would be an ideal New Year's resolution for him to consider.

What I'm commending here is CTG's current, final-inning programming at the Music Center: "The Christians" at the Mark Taper Forum and "The Bridges of Madison County" at the Ahmanson.

We might as well start with them, because not only are they among my favorite productions of 2015 but they're two out of only three productions on the list that readers can still see. The others have already closed.

If you assume that a play titled "The Christians" that's presented in December must be Christmas-oriented, you are mistaken. But if you assume that such a play on a CTG stage must be a snide attack on the title characters, you are also mistaken.

The title might be too ambitious. Christians are much more diverse than the play indicates. But playwright Lucas Hnath and director Les Waters (whose Actors Theatre of Louisville produced the play's premiere, with many of the same actors) are here not to sneer, but to provoke thought.

The production is designed as a service at a Protestant mega-church, complete with choir. The popular pastor (Andrew Garman) has a shocking message to deliver - he no longer believes in hell. But could that disbelief dissolve the believers' incentive to do the right thing? Could it dissolve the congregation itself?

The play is not restricted to one particular church service, as it investigates the aftermath of the minister's change of heart. But it retains the basic design, in which the characters stay inside that sanctuary with no set or costume changes.

In a venue where microphones are a must-have for public discussions, the characters continue to use them even in their private conversations with each other. The microphones make the pauses even more pregnant, and the minister's manipulation of the microphone cord becomes a visual metaphor of his attempts to artfully avoid the entanglements that his announcement precipitates. "The Christians" is one of the least predictable plays offered by CTG in years.

Looking at the title and the provenance of its next-door neighbor, "The Bridges of Madison County," you might assume that it's one of the most predictable of CTG offerings. Again, you would be mistaken.

bridges-ctg.jpgOf course, it's based on the slender but massively popular romance novel that also inspired a Hollywood movie. But it adds Jason Robert Brown's versatile and vivid Tony-winning score, his personal conducting of the orchestra in LA, Marsha Norman's artful enlargement of the narrative dimensions, and lustrous stars (Elizabeth Stanley, Andrew Samonsky) under the masterful direction of Bartlett Sher. "Bridges of Madison County" becomes as essential for musical theater aficionados as the Golden Gate is for travelers to San Francisco.

That's more than I can say about the other current Broadway musical import, "If/Then" at the Pantages. However, if you're drawn to cluttered, confusing narratives with mostly generic music until the second act, then you might prefer "If/Then."

Besides "Christians" and "Madison County," the only other show on my list of 2015 highlights that's still playing is the Troubadour Theater's revival of "Santa Claus is Comin' to Motown" at the Falcon Theatre in Burbank. Director Matt Walker plays the title role instead of the narrator, which he played in 2004 (the narrator is now played by the irrepressible Rick Batalla). Walker and company make sure to add 2015 jokes to this irresistible comic confection. Troubies shows are usually hot tickets, so if this one is on your Christmas wish list, you'd better not cry, you'd better not pout. Instead, take action.

And now, in alphabetical order, my complete list of 2015 highlights, representing the most talented tenth of the 200-plus shows I saw:

August: Osage County at Theatricum Botanicum. Tracy Letts' script came alive in Mary Jo DuPrey's staging in a way that it didn't in its earlier LA premiere at the Ahmanson, perhaps because four members of the Geer clan (plus the fiery Susan Angelo) were playing the roles of the related women.

Bad Jews at Geffen Playhouse. Joshua Harmon set an observant millennial against one of her non-observant cousins, with a family heirloom at stake, in the fiercest and funniest family fracas of the year.

The Bridges of Madison County. See above.

Carrie, the musical, first at La Mirada Theatre, then at Los Angeles Theatre in downtown LA. Director Brady Schwind turned this Gore/Pitchford musicalization of Stephen King's teen thriller into the year's best amusement park ride.

Chinglish from East West Players. Jeff Liu staged this sly, intricate comedy about cross-cultural misunderstandings in commerce and romance in the venue named after its writer, David Henry Hwang, who responded by introducing a slightly revised ending for the production's recent extension. See also "Enron" (below).

The Christians. See above.

Cineastas, at REDCAT. The inventive Argentine director Mariano Pensotti explored the lives of four filmmakers on one level of the stage and re-created scenes from their films on an upper level, noting the ways in which the characters and their artistic creations influence each other.

End of the Rainbow at International City Theatre. Gigi Bermingham depicted end-stage Judy Garland as an especially desperate cyclone in John Henry Davis' revival of Peter Quilter's musical drama.

Enron, from the Production Company at the Lex. Lucy Prebble's satirical and magically realistic dramatization of the corporate scandal finally reached LA in August Viverito's dynamic staging. Too bad it wasn't running at the same time as "Chinglish" (above), in which Chinese bureaucrats are duly impressed by an American's previous employment by the world-famous Enron.

Fences at International City Theatre. Michael Shepperd mastered every facet of the complex Troy Maxson in Gregg T. Daniel's vigorous revival of August Wilson's play (later, Shepperd went on to shine in the comedy vignettes within "Bootycandy" at his home company, the Celebration).

Hopscotch, from The Industry at many sites around LA. I didn't see even half of this massive three-track, site-specific "opera," much of which took place in cars driven down public streets. But I experienced one of the three tracks and separately witnessed a few of the other scenes in public places. I saw two scenes that involved no singing at all (one of these was a conversation between Cornerstone Theater actor Peter Howard in a moving limo and a motorcyclist in the next lane). So the theater world should not let visionary director Yuval Sharon's "opera" roots serve as a distraction from welcoming him into the related but hardly synonymous "theater" arena ASAP.

Julius Caesar, at A Noise Within. Directors Julia Rodriguez-Elliott and Geoff Elliott shot Shakespeare's political epic forward with uncommon speed and power. It was part of a repertory in which "The Threepenny Opera" depicted conditions that were ripe for revolution while "Julius Caesar" displayed the results.

Luka's Room, at Rogue Machine. Rob Mersola's provocative San Fernando Valley-set comedy focused on a slacker who ventures down unexpected online roads. Narrative twists elevated the show's concerns. Joshua Bitton directed.

Man Covets Bird, at 24th Street Theatre. Finegan Kruckemeyer's parable about a young man, a bird and modern alienation was transformed by director Debbie Devine and Leeav Sofer into a simple but haunting musical, which could be appreciated by older children as well as adults.

Mojada, a Medea in Los Angeles, a Boston Court production at the Getty Villa. Medea became a seamstress who retreated to her East LA yard after a brutal cross-border passage. Luis Alfaro's script, staged by Jessica Kubzansky, was the most impressive adaptation and the best new LA-set play of 2015.

MBDtopleft.jpgMy Barking Dog, from Theatre @ Boston Court. Eric Coble's play about two loners and a coyote hooked me on its characters in realistic opening monologues and then ventured into truly dark and dangerous straits. The performances and every design component of Michael Michetti's staging were impeccable.

A Permanent Image, at Rogue Machine. Not just another alcohol-fueled family-reunion play, Samuel D. Hunter's entry in this genre touched on such larger arenas as assisted suicide and the Big Bang theory. John Perrin Flynn's staging, starring a golden cast and Nicholas Santiago's astonishing video, deserves a larger audience in a midsize theater.

Santa Claus Is Comin' to Motown. See above.

Spring Awakening, at the Wallis Annenberg Center in Beverly Hills. Deaf West's and Michael Arden's entrancing rendition of the musical, with its ASL-infused style, stopped at the Wallis on its way from Inner-City Arts to Broadway. The Wallis was an ideal home for it, offering big-time benefits while retaining a sense of intimacy and superb sight lines.

Vietgone, at South Coast Repertory. Qui Nguyen's interpretation of his parents' saga of their 1975 meeting in an Arkansas camp for Vietnamese refugees uses the lens of his own generation's perspective, with contemporary language and comic-book design. Director May Adrales expertly handled the best world premiere in greater LA in 2015. South Coast's overlapping revival of Beth Henley's "Abundance," staged by Martin Benson, made a fascinating companion piece.

Bombast threat

Am I some kind of terrorist? Should I ask the FBI to investigate me?

In my last column, I complimented the tone of unity that prevailed at the annual Ovation Awards ceremony, after a year in which the LA theater had been involved in internecine struggle over Actors' Equity's decision to end the current 99-seat plan.

And what was the reaction of Steven Leigh Morris, the pro-99 partisan who now runs LA Stage Alliance, which sponsors the Ovation Awards?

He compared me to the terrorists in Paris. And Mali. He probably would have included those in San Bernardino, but he was writing before they struck.

In his response on the Stage Raw website, which he founded, Steven (yes, we're on a first-name basis) didn't actually mention me in the same sentence as Paris and Mali. But after calling for unity in the face of such dire threats and invoking "the battle of Agincourt. The Battle of Britain," he introduced his fourth paragraph with these words:

"And this is as true culturally as it is politically. Don Shirley..."

If I may wade through the overkill to his main points, here they are:

He said I described the calls for unity that he and others made at the Ovations ceremony as "a step back from prior convictions." Actually, I said no such thing - unless he, using his wartime analogies, equates an "inclusive, unifying tone," as I characterized his Ovation-night remarks, with Neville Chamberlain-style appeasement (come to think of it, he did use that "Battle of Britain" analogy, in which case who exactly is the Hitler analogue?).

More important, he charges that "Don just wants those smaller theaters gone because they annoy him. He seems to think they're a waste of his time, and ergo, everybody else's."

I thought I made it clear in my column that I don't want the small companies to disappear. I'd prefer that they marshal their time and energy in order to grow into larger companies, with higher profiles, so that their best work is not so easy for the larger public to ignore. Apparently Steven didn't notice that later in the same column, I praised a production at a small theater (see "Man Covets Bird," above), adding that I hoped it would find a second home and a longer life at a larger theater (see "Spring Awakening," above).

Steven also failed to acknowledge that Equity itself, by changing its initial plan, made sure that the 99-seat membership companies - run by the actors themselves - can more or less keep doing what they're doing now, without any interference from or supervision by Equity.

In fairness to Stage Raw, I should note that it ran another column, by Paul Birchall, that also disagreed with my position and even also mentioned the Paris attacks in its introduction, but which scrupulously avoided suggesting that I might have Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi on speed dial.

Steven, however, argued in his conclusion that I'm "on the side of outside factions who enter a community wielding bricks and pipes and firebombs." Yikes! I hope he doesn't tell the Sierra Club, with whom I frequently hike - they'll call the police if I show up with my backpack.

Middle photo: Andrew Samonsky and Elizabeth Stanley in "The Bridges of Madison County" at the Center Theatre Group/Ahmanson Theatre. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

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