.Pillowman & Superman

The year's best in theater

It has been a year of unrest all around the Bay Area theater scene, with artistic directors of San Francisco and South Bay companies coming and going willy-nilly. But on this side of the water it has been less a question of personnel than of space.

This was the year Playhouse West resumed operations in its own revamped theater after bouncing back from the financial straits that forced it to cut off its season operations a year and a half earlier. Meanwhile, Oakland’s TheatreFIRST lost its performance space and put its season on hold. The Marsh lost its Berkeley stage and has remained in San Francisco ever since. Oakland Opera was priced out of its Oakland Metro Operahouse and moved. Alameda Civic Light Opera is trying to raise $100,000 by the end of the year or else it threatens to call it quits for good after eleven seasons.

But even in this rough economic climate there managed to be a lot of halfway-decent theater in the East Bay this year, sometimes even all-the-way decent, and every now and then there was something amazing. Here are ten productions that made it all seem worthwhile:

1. Clown Bible, Ten Red Hen. There was a whole lot more to this musical clown show of Bible stories by composer Dave Malloy and director Maya Gurantz than just slapping red noses on the prophets. Packed with slyly subversive takes on familiar stories and infectiously memorable songs, this bare-bones production in a middle school metal shop was something sublime.

2. The Pillowman, Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Martin McDonagh’s play about a fairy-tale writer under interrogation for a string of grisly murders reminiscent of his stories is a delicate dance of gruesome menace and pitch-black humor, and one navigated nimbly by director Les Waters and a stellar cast headed by Tony Amendola and Erik Lochtefeld.

3. Anna Bella Eema, Crowded Fire. A stunning finale to director Rebecca Novick’s artistic directorship, Lisa D’Amour’s fable of a trailer park golem was full to bursting with musicality, rich mythic and modern language, humor, and the spellbinding presence of the three women storytellers who never leave their chairs.

4. I Have Loved Strangers, Just Theater. Anne Washburn’s fragmented and funny, philosophically dense play merging the Weather Underground with the Book of Jeremiah was thoroughly enjoyable even if you didn’t know much about either, and Jonathan Spector’s fast-paced production proved a promising East Bay debut for the Berkeley-based company.

5. after the quake, Berkeley Rep. Combining two short stories from Haruki Murakami’s book, writer-director Frank Galati’s Steppenwolf Theatre production deftly juxtaposed a lyrical college romance and a fantastical tale of a heroic frog and a meek bank officer, and the transformation of actors between the two was nothing short of magical.

6. Man & Superman, California Shakespeare Theatre. Between this and Les Waters’ production of Heartbreak House at Berkeley Rep, it was a good year for George Bernard Shaw. Jonathan Moscone’s sharp staging of Shaw’s antiromantic romance was an absolute delight from the ruthless machinations of well-bred ladies down to an impishly anachronistic “Don Juan in Hell” sequence.

7. In Spite of Everything, Suicide Kings. The spoken-word trio’s exploration of a Columbine-style school shooting was a hard-hitting and resonant patchwork of first-person narratives as both themselves and other characters, the conceit being that the cops think one of their ruckus-raising poetry workshops may have given the killer ideas.

8. Argonautika, Berkeley Rep. It’s funny that two of the strongest shows in Berkeley Rep’s season so far ­— this one and after the quake — originated in Chicago. Mary Zimmerman’s deconstruction of the story of Jason and the Argonauts mixed mythic and modern language to often stunning effect, with a haunting and sometimes very funny way of bringing legendary heroes and platform-heeled goddesses down to earth.

9. Continuous City, UC Berkeley Department of Theater, Dance and Performance Studies. This collaboration with Cal students was mainly an opportunity for the Builders Association, a New York multimedia theater company, to beta-test a social-networking site to be incorporated into its work-in-progress of the same name. But even in its rough form, the interplay between onstage and onscreen characters and their face-to-Facebook relationships was clearly digging into some especially fertile ground.

10. Cartoon, Impact Theatre. Saturday morning cartoon characters slaughtering each other — what’s not to love? Steven Yockey’s madcap comedy was just the sort of thing at which Impact Theatre excels, a whirlwind of pop culture references and very dark humor. The slapstick mishaps of Suitor and Damsel and the soulful weariness of Winston Puppet were unforgettable.

And here are a few specifics that shouldn’t go unmentioned:

Best Performance: Corey Fischer’s painfully crumpled Willy Loman in Traveling Jewish Theatre’s Death of a Salesman.

Best Show-Stealers: An odd toss-up between the burlesque dancers spicing up Impact’s Impact Briefs 8: Sinfully Delicious and the dramatic heft of James Carpenter’s ailing Edward IV in Cal Shakes’ Richard III.

Best Set: Lisa Clark’s reedy marshlands for the Shotgun Players production of Eisa Davis’s Bulrusher.

Best Music: Dave Malloy, because it was impossible to come away from Clown Bible not singing, “I’m Saaamson, I’m craaaazy.”

Best Prop: The remote-controlled curling stone in Thunderbird Theatre’s Citizen Kane send-up Aah! Rosebud. Interestingly, the same technology used to propel a fearful fuzzball in the Woman’s Will’s postmodern Antigone was just strange and off-putting.


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