Greatest achievement of 2009: though double-teamed by a rotten economy and the swine flu scare, our theaters survived, though many by the slimmest of margins.
Many of 2009’s finest productions were ensemble efforts: each actor an individual and part of a larger whole, with no weak links. Remove just one actor, and the show would be less effective.
At the beginning of Cygnet’s Noises Off, a mute starter’s gun went off, and the top-notch cast sprinted through Michael Frayn’s backstage farce about a British touring company. Sean Fanning’s two-level set complicated matters: the cast ran horizontally and vertically, up and down steep stairs for three acts, easily earning them the Aerobic Ensemble of the Year Award.
The Dresser at the North Coast Rep boasted standout performances by Jonathan McMurtry as the aging thespian “Sir” and Sean Sullivan as the officious title character who had served him, unappreciated, for 16 years. Their tandem work was special, but so was the supporting cast. Ditto the Old Globe’s Twelfth Night. Director Paul Mullins’s 21 actors (wearing Linda Cho’s splendid costumes) created an entire landscape: the Italian Riviera of the 1950s. It’s almost unfair to single someone out in such a fine collective effort, but Patrick Page’s cross-gartered Malvolio and especially James Newcomb’s sad, sage Feste were outstanding. Feste was so stripped of illusions, in another lifetime he could have been Qoheleth, author of Ecclesiastes.
The Old Globe’s Opus, an ensemble show about a musical ensemble, boasted the year’s finest technical achievement. As the Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre (2009’s best architectural achievement!) was under construction, the Globe staged shows at the San Diego Museum of Art’s Copley Auditorium. Sound designer Lindsay Jones had to replicate a live string quartet in a large room with, at best, only passable acoustics.
When the violinists and cellist played, Jones had the music emerge from the instruments. Even though the actors made no attempt at the fingerings for Beethoven’s Opus 131, after a while you’d bet the ranch that, somehow, the strings generated that music.
When tea boiled offstage, the steam hissed exactly from where it should. Jones also handled the basics with ease: on a makeshift stage, every word was crystal clear. Most amazing of all, this wasn’t an egocentric, ain’t-I-somethin’ design. The sounds were just that; they supported the story.
Sometimes critics declare that an actor’s made a major breakthrough (i.e., “I hereby dub thee broken-through”). More likely: the actor had the chops all along and finally got the chance to cut loose. Case in point: Karson St. John, a relative unknown, in Diversionary’s The Little Dog Laughed. She played Diane, a tough-talking Hollywood agent/wannabe producer. Diane knows the ropes — at one point she says: “A writer with final cut? I’d rather give firearms to small children” — but can’t tie all the knots. Easily the year’s funniest performance.
Jennifer Brawn Gittings decked St. John out in sleek contemporary fashions. Gittings’s and Jeanne Reith’s cavalcade of 18th-century finery for Lamb’s Players’ Joyful Noise rank among the year’s best costume designs.
Oscar Wilde said, “I am not young enough to know everything.” In the North Coast Rep’s Over the Tavern, 12-year-old Ian Brininstool played Rudy, in whom a gap grew between competing views: the Baltimore catechism says one thing; the world, another. Brininstool performed with such assurance it was easy to believe not only his character but also Wilde’s claim.
There were so many fine supporting efforts, a short list can’t include them all. But here goes: Armin Shimmerman’s blind, blazing Richard, in the San Diego Rep’s Seafarer; Leigh Scarritt’s whacked-out Mrs. Peachum in the Rep’s fine Threepenny Opera; Deanna Driscoll’s gabby policewoman in Moxie’s Butcher of Baraboo; Alan Mandell’s Professor Williams, gadfly extraordinaire, in the La Jolla Playhouse’s otherwise unengaging Restoration.
The year’s top dramatic performances suggested depths beneath the depths. In Ion’s Frozen, Dana Hooley played Nancy Shirley. A serial killer (Matt Scott terrific as a fierce, then fragile maniac) raped and murdered Nancy’s daughter. Though caught in the cycle of violence, Nancy moves from unconditional vengeance to understanding, even forgiveness — a seemingly impossible arc to complete. How Hooley did it, I still don’t know; the performance was seamless.
Darko Tresnjak’s such an inventive director he can turn the familiar into something new and vital. Last summer he staged Edmund Rostand’s Cyrano, the warhorse swashbuckler that oozes with sentiment, and mined it for fresh insights and emotions. One of local theater’s greatest losses in 2009: for reasons still obscure, Tresnjak left the Globe last fall — because he dared to venture beyond the safe?
Instead of making the long-nosed lead a romantic icon, Patrick Page infiltrated Cyrano’s bravado with the consequences of his choices. By playing the courtly (i.e., celibate) lover, Cyrano sealed himself away from life. And though he could slash through half an army — and even does so at one point, making him the Rambo of the épée — Page’s Cyrano was at once a hero and his own worst enemy, true to his word and paying for it in full.
Both the Old Globe and the La Jolla Playhouse had far more misses than hits this year. It’s unfair to compare theaters to each other. But it’s fair game to compare a theater to its own body of work. Both fell far short of their norms in 2009.
The year’s biggest treat: the Ira Aldridge Players’ Looking for an Echo. Director Calvin Manson staged a tribute to the doo-wop a cappella singers of the ’50s and ’60s. Instead of casting people who could imitate the style, Manson assembled nine San Diegans who have performed the music for decades and, their motto goes, “We still ain’t got a band.”
You could tell something was up as they single-filed onstage: heads down in silence, like athletes entering an arena rather than entertainers smiling and goofing and trying to endear themselves. The songs — among them Sam Cooke’s “Chain Gang” and Gene Chandler’s immortal “Duke of Earl” — blended soloists with tight four-part harmonies.
In no time, you knew everyone in the cast and looked forward to Roger Varmer’s bottom-line bass, Aaron Holland and Roosevelt Carter’s leads, and Gary Martin’s renditions of the Drifters’ great Ben E. King. Echo had an authenticity and a rare spirit and offered one of theater’s greatest gifts: you went home wide awake.
For one night only, Manson’s reprising the musical revue at the Lyceum Theatre on January 8. In belt-tightening times like these, we must narrow our wishes, yadda yadda. That said, I wish this group had a semiregular gig — at the Lyceum? — where they perform until the crowds stop coming. That could be some while.