Los Angeles Theater Commentary: BEST OF LOS ANGELES THEATER, 2013

by Jason Rohrer on December 28, 2013

in Theater-Los Angeles

MY FAVORITE NIGHTS

Looking back over a year’s playgoing, it’s every bit as easy to be jaded about little broke theaters as it is about big grant-eaters.  Little broke theaters are constant trials of inconvenience for an audience member – you share a bathroom with the cast; you’re confused by the stage-house configuration; you have to hike to Williamsburg or Wicker Park or North Hollywood.  Big grant-eaters are mostly broke too, and the seats aren’t always sittable, but they trend toward better neighborhoods and more glass in the lobby.  You recognize the people onstage sometimes, and certainly the tickets are not as cheap.  Parking sucks for every theater everywhere in the world, big or small, one way or another.

But it’s the play onstage that matters, and it’s very tempting to say that, given greater resources, the big theaters ought to be held to a higher standard…and that the little ones, well, hey, they’ve got a tough row to hoe, so A for effort, guys.  But it ain’t that simple.

The little shops have a tremendous advantage over the big ones in the freedom to stage whatever the hell they want without worrying about an aging subscription base.  Broke theaters can go all Grotowski and please a more adventurous demographic.  Low rent means they don’t have to charge as much for tickets, so they don’t have to appeal exclusively to rich white people.  It means they can’t afford expensive extras like TV actors or fly rails, so they can invest in imagination and focus on underserved presentation styles.  When a big grant-eating theater plays it tame and dull, I am never surprised and rarely even upset.  But when a little theater issues a straightforward, middle-of-the-road product, I want to chop the place into cordwood.

In 2013, I saw some smaller Los Angeles theaters do what they’re supposed to:

Chad Jason Scheppner of Theatre 31.

Chad Jason Scheppner’s Theatre 31 brings theater directly to children by making afterschool activities not just cool but awesomely cool.  This year, at Venice’s Coeur d’Alene Elementary, Scheppner and about 50 kids under the age of 12 used hippie music, puppets, gender-bending multiple-casting and biomechanical staging to present a mind-blowing half-hour The Princess Bride, provoking shouts of delight from parents who could have been forgiven for expecting to be bored except when their own kids were onstage.

TWILIGHT-ZONE-UNSCRIPTED-Impro-Theatre

Impro Theatre combines groundbreaking, multidisciplinary artistic mastery with familiar playwrights and styles to improvise and act out full-length plays before your astonished eyes.  And it’s not simply amazing, it’s just about the best theater you can see in Southern California – acting, writing, direction, dramaturgy, all are absolutely top-shelf.  Last year artistic director Dan O’Connor’s Chekhov UnScripted displayed a more thorough understanding of Chekhov than any production I’ve seen outside Russia.  This year Impro’s Austen (directed by O’Connor and Paul Rogan) and Twilight Zone (directed by Jo McGinley and Stephen Kearin) made me fall in love with writers and genres I had long thought overhyped.  In 2014 Impro plays on Pasadena Playhouse and South Coast Rep grounds, so let’s hope its excellence and fearlessness are infectious.

Paige Lindsey White in 24th Street Theatre's "Walking the Tightrope." Photo-by-Cindy-Marie-Jenkins

24th Street Theatre has created a massive upsurge in Los Angeles goodwill simply by existing where it does and as it does. Thanks, Jay McAdams.  This year they mounted Mike Kenny’s Walking the Tightrope, a kids’ play that adults came back to over and over.  And cried and cried.  And rejoiced at having found.  Director Debbie Devine and three committed performers turned an all-dialogue script into a bright, complex, unified reminder of what it’s possible to see on a stage.  The show’s going on tour soon.  I hope a lot of artistic directors see it.

"American Misfit" at Boston Court

Theatre@Boston Court is too gorgeous a house in too safe a neighborhood to belong on this list, but its audacious sensibility keeps it out of Retirement Home for the Classics territory even though it is in Pasadena.  No theater run by Jessica Kubzansky and Michael Michetti is going to play it safe, and this year Michetti’s super, fun, superfun production of Dan Dietz’s play about 18th Century American terrorists,  American Misfit, happened to coincide with certain events in Boston.  Plays topical, timeless, and titillating will always need to be seen, and I will always need to see them.

Son of Semele's "Civilization (all you can eat)"

Son of Semele put up a play this year that felt so immediate and true that for a couple of hours I thought I was watching real life, only without the filter placed on all our eyes by corporate media.  Jason Grote’s Civilization (All You Can Eat), as directed by Don Boughton and choreographed by Ken Roht, presented a paranoid America in which factory hogs can evolve into murderous human pornographers, selling our own meat back to us at a profit.  I mean, right?  If artistic director Matthew McCray keeps pulling together writers and artists like this, he might just make traditional theater seem relevant again.

Guilford-Adams-as-Macbeth-in-Shotspeare-presents-MACBETH

Shotspeare provided two of my most exhaustive theatrical catharses this year, both at performances of the same production of Macbeth.  This subversively reverent drunks-with-swords version of Shakespeare came complete with wheels of fortune and penalty drinks and some of the most painstakingly entertaining direction I have ever seen brought to bear on the bard.  After an unfortunate altercation opening night prevented me from hearing part of the show, I figured Macbeth was a sophomore slump after last year’s terrific Romeo and Juliet.  A second viewing convinced me not only that Shotspeare is consistently one of the few opportunities to see passion and humor invested in service of the Western Canon, but that Matt Morgan is one of the few Shakespeare directors in town as interested in amusing his audience as himself.

Thank you, little theater companies.

photo of the Los Angeles Theatre marquee © Steven Rood

{ 1 comment }

Cindy Marie Jenkins January 2, 2014 at 11:05 am

Great list, Jason, and thank you for the 24th Street shout-out. Happy New Year!

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