San Diego theater year in review

Practically every theater in the county produced a world premiere in 2015

Quality of Life at Intrepid Theatre Company
  • Quality of Life at Intrepid Theatre Company

Back in September I remarked that “2015 may be one of the gutsiest years ever in San Diego theater. I can’t remember so many world premieres.” The final three months kept pace. Call it the Year Local Theaters Didn’t Get the Memo. Armchair pundits warn that staging world premieres is too risky. They’re too hit-or-miss, most likely miss, and audiences steer clear in droves. Not so in 2015.

Scripteasers and the Playwright’s Project have nurtured new work for decades. But this year, practically every theater in the county either produced a world premiere or did staged readings of untested scripts.

Talk about missing the memo: the La Jolla Playhouse did seven in their 2014–2015 season: Come From Away (my favorite musical this year), Up Here, Blueprints to Freedom: An Ode to Bayard Rustin, Indecent, The Darrell Hammond Project, plus premieres for the Without Walls Festival (Tom Dugdale and The Trip’s inventive Three Sisters among them) and the Performance Outreach Program’s The Astronaut Farmworker.

Around the theater community, count (some of) the ways: Moxie, Orange Julius; Lamb’s Players, Jon Lorenz’s Oz; San Diego Rep, the “rolling-world premiere” of Uncanny Valley, and Steve Gunderson’s Everybody’s Talkin’; Ion did several, and Sea of Souls went to New York for a brief run; Teatro Mascara Magica, Paul Rodriguez’s The Pitch, or How to Pitch a Latino Sitcom that Will Never Air, and Francis Thumm’s Tijuana Revolution; the Old Globe offered a dance-theater piece, In Your Arms, and opens 2016 with its third annual New Voices Festival; feisty InnerMission Productions staged a world premiere, Disappearing Act, as part of its first full season!

The Rep Goes National. Last November, PBS kicked off a new series, OnStage in America. They select “the very best productions from American regional theater” and film them with sophisticated techniques. For their inaugural entry, PBS chose the San Diego Rep’s wild and thought-provoking Honky. The Sam Woodhouse–directed show aired November 6. Along with upping our prestige nationally, it was a treat to see familiar faces on national TV, and it was clear why Jacque Wilke earned a Craig Noel acting award for 2014 as Andie, whose racial naivete’s awesomely offensive.

Music, Music, Music... We now take for granted a consistent level of quality in local musicals. From Moonlight Stage Productions to San Diego Musical Theatre, to touring shows, smaller houses, the schools and youth theaters, you can go and be entertained from Oceanside to the border all year long. And be really entertained when the Old Globe brought in Darko Tresnjak’s lusty, life-brimming Kiss Me Kate.

The Quality of The Quality of Life. Intrepid Theatre mounted Jane Anderson’s four-character drama with several strikes against it. From afar, the play sounds like a downer: Berkeley couple, dying scholar and irrepressible wife, who plans to commit suicide when he goes; hurting Midwestern couple comes to visit — and engage in comparative suffering. Strike two: Intrepid staged it at the Carlsbad Village Theatre, an old movie house with acoustics so eccentric they had to rope off half the house. Demand for tickets became so great they un-roped it so more people could see one of the best acted (Jeffrey Jones, Deanna Driscoll, Tom Stephenson, Maggie Carney) and most moving shows of recent years.

Shining Stars. Jones and Driscoll gave two of the year’s most outstanding performances. I will never ever ever forget when she slumped on the chair and cried out her soul.

Often authors write lead roles for themselves to strut their thespian chops. Michael Benjamin Washington wrote Blueprints to Freedom so he could play Bayard Rustin, the great, largely unheralded, civil rights leader. But Washington made Rustin an acquired taste. At first he was egocentric, out of favor with the movement. He was almost as off-putting for one to ask “Why are we here?” Then, in an amazing performance, Washington slowly opened up new layers, in effect thickening our portrait of the courageous, jagged, behind-the-scenes crusader history almost forgot.

I Wish Everyone Could Have Seen: M’Lafi Thompson like trembling granite in Ion’s ’night, Mother; Mercedes Ruehl’s brash Diana Vreeland in the Old Globe’s Full Gallop; Amanda Sitton facing a mother’s horror in the Rep’s The Oldest Boy; Sandy Campbell as diva Maria Callas in Ion’s Master Class; Dana Hooley’s eerie innocence in New Fortune’s The Birthday Party; Richard Baird’s obsessive thug in The Birthday Party, and his appropriately unfathomable Jerry in North Coast Rep’s Betrayal; David McBean’s hilarious hitman in the North Coast Rep’s Unnecessary Farce, whose Scottish accent, when he became angry, went on warp drive.

And Also Seen: Colleen Kollar Smith’s death-defying choreography for Lamb’s Players’ West Side Story (the flying bodies threatening to smear the stage with flying body parts); Delicia Turner Sonnenberg’s sharp direction/choreography for the Rep’s My Mañana Comes. The play begins with a boast: the four workers at a posh restaurant claim they never make a mistake, even as they slam through double doors with piles of greasy dishes. So there’s the challenge to the actors. The adroit cast dropped nary a plate.

And that people also saw the way Neil Patel’s set for Blueprints to Freedom went from a big, dusty old room to a panorama of the nation’s capital during the March on Washington, 1963.

Rising Stars: There should be a Rising Star Award for newcomers making a distinct impression, and for veterans who show a sudden leap in ability — often because finally given the chance. One must go to Maggie Carney. Always strong in supporting roles, she blossomed in 2015, first in Cygnet’s Sons of the Prophet, then in The Quality of Life (it’s now hard to imagine anyone else playing feathery Dinah, or anyone other than Tom Stephenson playing stolid husband Bill, for that matter). Mike Sears, same deal: able in supporting roles, he roared in Backyard Renaissance’s Parlour Song as Ned, a passel of comic ineptitudes and one big hurt.

Another Rising Star: designer Eliza Benzoni. Her gaudy yet precise costumes for North Coast Rep’s The Fox in the Fairway raised the question: can a garment be both over-the-top and subtle? Sean Fanning’s star’s been on the rise, but in 2015 it found a home in the firmament. His creative scenic designs included The Whale and Hay Fever/The Vortex for Cygnet, Everybody’s Talkin’ and Honky for the Rep, West Side Story for the San Diego Musical Theatre, and Diana Vreeland’s blazing red living room for the Globe’s Full Gallop.

Welcome Aboard: Backyard Renaissance made its debut with a striking production of Jez Butterworth’s stark and eerie Parlour Song. Welcome to Subtext City, where the surface looks like a reflecting pool, but underneath — hooo-weee! Up next, to display versatility and continue their “art to the gut” mission statement, Bernard Pomerance’s The Elephant Man.

Deadlines and Commitments: The San Diego Theater Critics Circle will hold its annual Craig Noel Award Ceremony on Monday, February 8, at the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego.

To all those lazybones who vowed to enter last year’s festival and snoozed through the deadline, the San Diego International Fringe Festival will begin accepting submissions soon. Information at sdfringe.org/artists.html.

Should Olde Acquaintance Be Forgot... Numerologists say 2016 is a “Nine Year” — since that’s what the numbers total — and that “Nine Years” can have great significance. Whether or not you believe in prophetic math, let’s make next year one anyway.

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