Another rapid-fire year has come and gone. In terms of theatre stuff, it feels so cliché to note how this year was one of the best on our Bay Area stages. But it’s hard to argue otherwise, yes?
I spoke this past year with an artist, and the reaction on both of our parts seemed to be that the current presidential administration has lit a fire under the artistic community. With President Obama and his strong support of the arts, there was complacency, a feeling that accomplishments were daily business. But now, living through a time that is so unprecedented, so volatile and so frustrating, it’s hard not to take the latest sublime headline you just read into a darkened theatre and not have it shape your viewing of the plot as it unfolds on the boards.
By no means does any one person or politician validate an artist’s work – artists were doing amazing things before Trump came in and will do so long after he is gone. I personally hope that exit is very, very soon. But nothing inspires me more personally than seeing women and artists of color changing the cultural landscape, placing things in a cultural context and just straight up killing it at a time where we need the arts maybe more than ever.
Some amazing events took place in the Bay Area and beyond this year. I was able to see five shows on Broadway this past November (“The Prom” and “Mean Girls” were divine, and “Waitress” serves up magic nightly), and took part in the sublimely magnificent marathon of Berkeley Rep’s “Angels in America,” which I would call the theatre event of the year. I also directed two musicals and saw traffic for this site the largest it has ever been, a site I started in July of 2012, and a site that has grown in traffic and unique visitors every year.
One of the best things about running this site is the ability I get to speak with so many amazing artists. I’ve had lots of great conversations throughout the year, but I must give special shout outs to prolific playwright and fellow Latinx person Karen Zacarias, who has a rich family history and is doing so much for Latinx theatre on a national level. There is also Heidi Schreck, who was immensely enjoyable to spend an hour with. And finally, there is the great Bay Area theatre authority Lily Tung Crystal, who gave me two insightful interviews for two separate pieces.
I also must shout out longtime friend and fellow Dub Nation resident Jeffrey Lo, who has reached his final day of an absurdly ambitious project, writing a play every day in 2018. Just plain crazy, but what a commitment. Read all the plays here.
I feel like my top shows this year are a direct reflection of my own world view. And more than anything, I feel like my list validates the entire point of theatre in the first place – to tell a unique, powerful story. Every one of these stories is an American story, a direct challenge to the defaults we are conditioned with in the American theatre. Maybe more than any other time when compiling these lists, as a theatre journalist (critic is only half of my job), I am so excited about what 2019 will bring. More women, more stories of underrepresented people, more groundbreaking, more fire, more thrill, more escape, more challenging the status quo. And while we have incredible regional theatres, the smaller houses throughout the Bay Area are making grand choices, rewarding audiences nightly.
Without further ado, and in no particular order, I present my top 10 of ’18…
- “A Streetcar Named Desire” – Ubuntu Theater Project – February
Ubuntu is not a company which has a theatre that you simply walk into and enjoy a show. It’s more than that. Personally, I admire the shit out of a company where, no matter what kind of money you have, you can watch the show. Bankroll has nothing to do with access in their theatre. Their version of Tennessee Williams’ classic “Streetcar,” in its tight downtown Oakland in-the-round space was thrilling and experimental, with actors of color in the principal roles. Ogie Zulueta was a ferocious Stanley, Sarita Ocón was majestically conflicted as Stella, caught in the middle of her husband and her enigmatic sister Blanche, who was divine and loaded with empathy, a strong portrayal by Lisa Ramirez.
- “Sweeney Todd” – San Jose Stage Company – February
Shows like Stephen Sondheim’s masterpiece are so strongly in the Stage’s wheelhouse, who use their quirky downtown San Jose space with aplomb. Musically, like much of Sondheim, there is nothing simple about his tight-as-a-fist harmonies and dark as night sensibilities in the storytelling. Noel Anthony as the Demon Barber of Fleet Street and Stage stalwart Allison Rich as Mrs. Lovett led a fantastic cast in this wonderful interpretation.
- “Vietgone” – American Conservatory Theater – April
Qui Nguyen and his groundbreaking play, which has everything – a non-linear story, crude humor, a fabulous tip of the cap to the history of hip-hop and rap and an examination of the complicated Vietnamese diaspora centered around the end of the Vietnam war – is powerful. The semi-autobiographical piece where Nguyen reflects on the story of his parents and their migration saves the best for last, in a powerful conversation between Nguyen and his father.
If the American theatre is going to survive and have truth, stories like these and playwrights like Nguyen must be thrust to the front of the line.
- “A Fatal Step” – The Marsh – April
Playwright and performer Jill Vice saw that the film noir genre has historically only needed women in the context of men, so she did something about it. Her story, which focused on a femme fatale and her relationship to a podiatrist, was terribly funny with great touches and a vicious fight scene where Vice beat the crap out of herself. A taut turn by the strong dame in the red dress.
- “What the Constitution Means to Me” – Berkeley Repertory Theatre – May
I did not see a play timelier than this one all year, and the strength of this piece, which was so beautifully balanced with humor and pathos, is the vulnerability of playwright and performer Heidi Schreck. The play is perfectly imperfect, much like our national living document. Never did the show feel like a screed, but I can’t remember learning more at a play than I did at this one.
Schreck’s piece has gone on to New York and has done big business there, but not before a courageous run in the East Bay, sharing her insightful truth and in-depth knowledge of how this document has shaped her family in both positive and not so positive ways.
- “Soft Power” – The Curran – June
It’s always a thrill to see a new musical, and one that focuses on some new viewpoints. In this case, it’s the complicated history of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “The King and I” in the Asian community that’s put under a microscope. David Henry Hwang, who is not only the writer of the book but also the main character in the show, along with composer Jeanine Tesori and director Leigh Silverman are quite a dream team. The songs sway from pithy and light to biting and witty, mixing plenty of genres in this musical theatre playground.
- “Two Mile Hollow” – Ferocious Lotus – June
Playwright Leah Nanako Winkler noticed something bothersome when a New York theatre season was announced a few years back – there were a lot of plays being produced that dealt with white people by the water, who drank wine, unleashed their explosive secrets while counting their riches. Her response was the brilliant “Two Mile Hollow,” which was all kinds of wild, with huge laughs that played wonderfully in the tight Potrero Stage space with a talented cast loaded with broad comic sensibilities.
Winkler spent her year world-premiering this show throughout the country and is poised for a huge year in 2019. As her play so powerfully states, artists of color will no longer wait for others to deem the value of their work. Artists of color will now take their own reins.
Hell to the yeah.
- “Hold These Truths” – TheatreWorks Silicon Valley – August
The 90-minute tour de force from performer Joel de la Fuente, penned by Jeanne Sakata was a critical history lesson about American hero Gordon Hirabayashi, who challenged the status quo mightily by refusing to report to an internment camp after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The story is loaded with heartbreaking details but also wonderfully inspiring, with stories through the 90 minutes that go from the ridiculous to the sublime. A wonderful examination of a true American hero, a person whom I knew nothing about, which is a shame.
- “Church” – Crowded Fire – September
Young Jean Lee is not for everyone. But wow, she certainly is for me. I am so compelled by this playwright, who is as big a challenger of form, her work big, bold and loaded with searing commentary. Crowded Fire was the first place I learned about Lee, who spent her formative years as a student at UC Berkeley.
In “Church,” the righteous praise team wastes no time in telling us what huge losers they were, and now they are killing life. A play effectively full of disjointed non-sequiturs and plenty of moments where their joy got uncomfortable. A fantastic production of a daring playwright, and a pretty badass choir at the end.
- “Fairview” – Berkeley Repertory Theatre – October
Any of these end-of-the-year lists, in my view, must start and end with “Fairview,” which was so utterly powerful, so magical, so confounding and ultimately, so critical. What started off as sitcom in the spirit of “Good Times,” became a referendum of race and how we view ourselves through that prism. Does every Latinx story have to overcome drugs and feature a spicy mamita? Does every serious illness of a Black patriarch need to be in the heart disease category? And does it really suck to be Asian because of all the expectations placed on them? Playwright Jackie Sibblies Drury, with this potent piece and these critical questions, which were somewhat answered at the end of the show in an inventive way, has positioned this piece firmly in the conversation of the next great American play.
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To all who swing by the site, check out the calendar and subscribe to the regular stories, thank you for your support. I wish you a most wonderful 2019, and my hope is that you will find your story on any stage you choose to frequent.
See you at the theatre!