.All the Year’s a Stage

2008's top ten East Bay plays.

If last year was a good year for the Irish in East Bay theatre, with
standout productions of George Bernard Shaw and Martin McDonagh, 2008
was understandably dominated by election-themed plays but found room
for multiple productions of Candide, Uncle Vanya,
Pericles, The Best Man, Macbeth, and more
Midsummer Night’s Dreams than you could shake a spear at. It was
the usual mix of the sublime and the dreadful, with most shows falling
comfortably in the middle. Of the hundred-odd productions I caught in
2008, here’s my East Bay top ten, ranked roughly in order of
preference.

1. Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage,
Shotgun Players. This commissioned collaboration with New York’s Banana
Bag & Bodice transformed the Old English epic poem into a brawny
and raucous musical with flamboyant theatricality, wrestling matches,
go-go dancing warriors, and a jargon-spouting academic panel that
turned into monsters. It also shared a vital component with last year’s
top pick, Ten Red Hen’s Clown Bible: the fiendishly clever,
cabaret-infused music and songwriting of Dave Malloy. Although
Beowulf’s extended run came and went this summer, there’s one
last chance to see it at Berkeley Rep’s Roda Theatre on January 8,
newly revamped for an upcoming New York run.

2. Figaro, Berkeley Repertory Theatre.
Minneapolis’ Theatre de la Jeune Lune made one last visit to Berkeley
Rep before dissolving this year with this captivating
Beaumarchais/Mozart mashup of the Figaro trilogy. Hilarious and
bittersweet performances by co-adapters Dominique Serrand and Steven
Epp as the tattered Count and servant Figaro on the run from the French
revolution, with their youthful high jinks played out in lush operatic
flashbacks with their younger counterparts.

3. Ching Chong Chinaman, Impact Theatre. Rife
with magical realism and blithely inappropriate Asian-on-Asian
stereotyping, twentysomething local playwright Lauren Yee gave Impact’s
season a thunderous start with her comedic portrait of the all-American
Wong family: the affably clueless dad, the aimless mom, the teen
daughter stressing over her lack of colorful roots for her Princeton
application, and the son who’s had the bright idea to obtain a Chinese
indentured servant to do his homework and chores so he can play video
games all day.

4. Uncle Vanya, California Shakespeare Theater.
Erstwhile San Jose Rep artistic director Timothy Near absolutely nailed
the Chekhov classic in her Cal Shakes debut. She and a top-to-bottom
stellar cast wrung uproarious laughter out of the bleak comedy of
depression and regret that so often doesn’t seem like a comedy at all,
bringing out every ounce of humor that’s actually in the text rather
than trying to make it funny with extraneous slapstick.

5. Jukebox Stories: The Case of the Creamy
Foam
, Impact. Playwright-storyteller Prince Gomolvilas and
singer-songwriter Brandon Patton’s show may have been a
sequel/continuation of their similarly structured show from the
2006-2007 season, but it was also an endlessly entertaining grab bag of
songs, wry anecdotes, and blog entries that could be enjoyed again and
again because every night was different. The set list chosen at random
might include encounters with Maury Povich or an analysis of High
School Musical 2
as gay fantasia.

6. Taking Over, Berkeley Rep. In one of the two
solo shows Tony Taccone directed this year (the other being Carrie
Fisher’s Wishful Drinking), hip-hop monologist Danny Hoch turned
kvetching over the gentrification of his Williamsburg neighborhood of
Brooklyn into a bitingly funny portrait gallery of working-class
natives turned outsiders and carpetbagging buffoons alike with
chameleon-like dexterity.

7. Ubu for President, Shotgun. Josh Costello’s
reworking of Alfred Jarry’s absurd and scatological Ubu Roi as a
madcap presidential election romp was fast and loose and ultimately
irresistible in Shotgun artistic director Patrick Dooley’s outdoor
staging. Casi Maggio’s pop-tart teen princess and Sung Min Park’s
new-age peacenik in particular were priceless.

8. Monster in the Dark, foolsFURY. What might
otherwise have been a standard-issue authoritarian future dystopia was
made fresh and compelling through playwright Doug Dorst’s amusing and
evocative newspeak and the dancelike physicality of artistic director
Ben Yalom’s staging following political prisoners, bureaucrats,
outsiders, teachers, zealots, bogeymen, and secret police from the iron
grip of the Structure through Armageddon and beyond.

9. TRAGEDY: a tragedy, Berkeley Rep. Like a
Beckettian Daily Show, Will Eno’s play-as-newscast descended
gingerly into chaos with four TV reporters and a man in the street in
sky-is-falling panic over what sounds suspiciously like an ordinary
nightfall. Philosophical abstractions and hilarious poetic inanities
such as “It’s the worst world in the world here tonight, Frank” were
delivered with somber broadcaster’s gravitas as the newsmen (and the
play) gradually came to pieces in Les Waters’ dazzling production.

10. The Musical of Musicals: The Musical!,
Center REPertory Company. Telling the same dimestore melodrama tale of
the fiendish landlord and the hapless ingénue in the style of
five different Broadway songwriting teams, Eric Rockwell and Joanne
Bogart’s delightfully broad comedy proved to be a marvelously dead-on
satire of the musical genre, from the Oklahoma-like Rodgers and
Hammerstein send-up to a Sondheim Sweeney-meets-Company
mashup. The pièce de résistance was a deliciously
bombastic evisceration of Andrew Lloyd Webber pitting The
Phantom of the Opera against Evita.

Honorable mentions include TheatreFIRST’s haunting pedophilia drama
Future Me, and both Mary Zimmerman’s lush Arabian Nights
and Delroy Lindo’s sharp take on August Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come
and Gone
at Berkeley Rep, and Jonathan Moscone’s sparkling staging
of Wilde’s An Ideal Husband at Cal Shakes.

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