Gains, Losses, Highs, and Lows

— Just across the courtyard, without fanfare, the Globe staged one of the year's gems.

I suspect I'll remember 2006 as much for its disappointments as achievements. This was the year Claudio Raygoza's Ion Theatre and Calvin Manson's Ira Aldridge Players lost their homes. Both had found flexible, promising spaces. Both produced several worthy efforts to growing audiences. Both gone.

After 65 years of continuous productions in La Mesa, including the last 30 at the Ben Polack Art Center, the Lamplighters Community Theatre lost its performing space in August. This pillar of local theater -- which produced five shows a year, plus special events and solo performances -- is currently looking for a new home.

The artistic disappointment of the year, by far, was Twyla Tharp's The Times They Are A-Changin', a dance, musical, something-or-other based on the songs of Bob Dylan. It flopped at the Old Globe and on Broadway. The world premiere couldn't make up its mind what it should be about: Dylan's music; the shabby, pseudo-Melvillian, pseudo-carnival story Tharp concocted; or her memories from the time he first influenced her, which filtered through the 90-minute piece like a leitmotif.

Times needed changes, and one of the most persistent questions of early 2006 was how should Tharp fix it? Some said more choreography -- interpret the music physically -- and more of her. Others said shore up the contrived storyline, flesh out the characters -- make them more worthy of the music. Hard-core Dylan fans said to deep-six the wreck (I thought it'd make more sense not to use all of Dylan's music, but take one of the albums, like Blood on the Tracks, and stage it). When I play Times back on my mental DVD, I still can't figure out if it was a tribute to, or a parody of, the music. I still see those charcoal gray beach balls bouncing across the stage to the '60s anthem "Like a Rolling Stone" and want to pop every last one of them.

Just across the courtyard, without fanfare, the Globe staged one of the year's gems: Body of Water's exhibit A of how a creative production can transform a fair-to-middlin' script into unforgettable theater.

In Lee Blessing's drama, Avis and Moss find themselves adrift. Were they husband and wife? Are they just strangers? And where are they? Neither recognizes the locale, a mountaintop surrounded by water. Do they have Alzheimer's? Trauma-induced amnesia? When a young woman calling herself Wren enters, rather than clarify, she sharpens the questions. She could be a caregiver, a doctor's sadistic assistant, or a lawyer defending the couple from the murder of their 11-year-old daughter. Or, the whole play could be happening in Moss's mind. Or Wren's. Or only yours.

Before coming to the Cassius Carter, the overly long, pseudo-philosophical script received a realistic staging back East. What an odd choice, since the play thrives on surrealism and a hall-of-mirrors psychology. At the Carter, director Ethan McSweeney and scenic designer Michael Vaughn made the mountaintop a stained-wood pool deck surrounded by pale blue water. All sharp angles, there wasn't a single curve in the sleek design. It could be a real place -- the world's most pristine time-share -- or a netherspace where nothing intersects. Or both.

The set, York Kennedy's lighting -- bright, smog-free sunshine and slanting shadows -- and Michael Roth's dissonant music combined for one of the finest uses of the Cassius Carter arena stage in quite some time.

Some of 2006's most interesting acting involved playing characters who are losing, or have lost, their center. In Body of Water, Ned Schmidtke, Sandy Duncan, and young Samantha Soule were never the same person twice. All three resembled shuffled decks of cards, with some new version of Moss, Avis, or Wren suddenly appearing.

Yasmina Reza's Life X 3 asks four actors to play a dinner party from hell three different ways. But in doing so, they must play three versions of the same character: one berserk, one negotiating (or wavering) between the two, and one in control -- like Freud's id, ego, and superego. And when one changes, say, from id to ego, the three others also shift. Robert Smyth, Glynn Bedington, Colleen Kollar, and Lance Arthur Smith turned four characters into 12 and turned in -- along with the casts of Body of Water and Ion Theatre's All in the Timing -- some of the year's best ensemble work.

(All in the Timing, Old Town Theatre's Forbidden Broadway: Special Victims Unit, and Starlight's wonderful Urinetown were the year's funniest shows).

In Trying, also at the Carter, Jonathan McMurtry played Francis Biddle, former U.S. attorney general under FDR. When the story begins, Biddle is 81, chronically arthritic, and losing chunks of his mind to senility. One second he remembers details from four decades ago; the next, vacant.

Actors have been trained for decades to make a character add up to something whole and rounded. In each new scene, McMurtry had to subtract some quality, physical or mental, from Biddle. In this memory play about memory loss, McMurtry showed how it feels to fragment in slow stages.

In the year's most detailed, astonishing performance, Joshua Everett Johnson played physicist Werner Heisenberg in Copenhagen. When he met with his mentor, Niels Bohr, after WWII, was Heisenberg just a slick-haired scumbag in post-Nazi denial, or had he tried to stop Germany from creating the atomic bomb? David Frayn's drama resembles Bohr's principle of "Complementarity": we cannot see two "contradictory pictures of reality at the same time." An electron is either a particle or a wave.

Speaking with clipped, almost mathematical precision, his poker face betraying no emotional "tells," Johnson gave Heisenberg two contradictory centers, repulsive and sympathetic. Like a spinning coil he'd be tails in one scene, heads the next -- only you never saw the coin, just the sides. The amazing part: there was nothing vague about them. Heisenberg could be believably contrite, then just as believably manipulative. Here he's a particle, there a wave.

JoAnne Glover, one of the area's most versatile actors, played Ya Ya, a sly young French woman in Moxie's Limonade Tous Les Jours; she was an assertive Ophelia trapped in male-dominated Denmark, in New Village Arts' Hamlet; and the silk-clad, buoyant spirit guide, Maryamma, in the San Diego Rep's Miss Witherspoon. Glover concluded the year as cutlass-flashing, "farg"-shouting Isabella in Moxie's Wet, or Isabella the Pirate Queen Enters the Horse Latitudes. I can't recall a body of work in a single year as varied -- and admirably crafted -- as Glover's in 2006.

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