You never thought it would happen, but this year an East Bay theater production — an opera no less — actually graced the pages of Rolling Stone magazine. Indeed, this was the year of Green Day’s American Idiot, a dizzying production that gave director Michael Mayer newfound pop-culture currency while bringing an East Bay punk band into the high-art realm. Two-thousand-nine also saw fantastic reinterpretations of Faust, Beckett, and Brecht, myriad reimaginings of Greek myth (Aeschylus made a comeback this year), a lot of hand-wringing about the recession, and a little foreboding about what may happen when the Obama contact high wears off (most evident in Jon Tracy’s adaptation of Orwell’s Animal Farm). It was a year of stagey shock tactics and blowout productions, but some of the best stuff took place in small galleries and industrial spaces. For a newbie, it’s been a fascinating run. Of the sixty-odd shows I’ve seen this year, here are my top ten:
1. Faust: Part 1, Shotgun Players. Few characters are more difficult to depict than German professor Heinrich Faust: wonk, Renaissance man, herbalist, theologian, manic-depressive, magician, and serial switcher of allegiances. But Mark Jackson played him with alacrity in Faust: Part 1, his own Gothic adaptation of Goethe’s 19th-century drama about a man who dealt with the devil. Jackson wrote, directed, and starred in this thoroughly compelling play, with Peter Ruocco costarring as the canny devil Mephistopheles, and beautiful Blythe Foster playing Gretchen, the peasant girl who becomes Faust’s love interest. It’s a play about love, sex, and desire that turns into conquest, wherein no relationship is inured to the devil’s power games. Gretchen’s quaint German folk songs (taken from the original play) and Nina Ball’s birch-tree sets lent authenticity to this production.
2. The Future Project: Sunday Will Come, Campo Santo and Erika Chong Shuch Performance Project, in collaboration with Intersection for the Arts. Precise movements and emotional intensity have made Erika Chong Schuch a star choreographer in the Bay Area — most recently she developed the highly stylized, violent dance sequences for Shotgun Players’ Threepenny Opera. Schuch is the artistic force behind Sunday Will Come, which she cowrote with fellow dancer Sean San José, Octavio Solis, and Philip Kan Gotunda. Highly impressionistic and written mostly in blank verse, it’s a play that starts off talking about one thing (a fish), then turns out to be about something else (a relationship), then returns to the first theme in a weird, sublimated way. Poet-turned-songwriter Denizen Kane contributes a score of love songs.
3. Aurélia’s Oratorio, Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Born clown Aurélia Thierrée brings years of dance training, acrobatics, and an elastic body to this cirque nouveau production directed by her mother, Victoria Chaplin Thierrée. Set on a blank stage but furnished with odd, fantasyland props, it brims with optical tricks and illusions, balanced out by a series of sensual tangos. Aurélia’s costar Jaime Martinez wrestles with an overcoat and lassos himself, while Aurélia performs shadow puppetry for an audience of puppets. All actions defy natural law in this parallel universe. It’s tantamount to stepping inside a dream.
4. Jack Goes Boating, Aurora Theatre. “Love in the time of alienation” could be a subtitle for this offbeat romantic comedy, which sets adorable slacker Jack (Danny Wolohan) against two Type-A personalities, then gives him an ultra-neurotic love interest (Beth Wilmurt). Written by Bob Glaudini and directed by Joy Carlin, this production features quickly edited scenes and interesting reconfigurations of space along with a script that would suit a Kevin Smith movie. Wolohan is winsome as Jack, but he’s in good company with a cast that includes Gabriel Marin and the irresistibly saucy Amanda Duarte.
5. American Idiot, Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Unquestionably the East Bay performance event of the year, this rock opera didn’t disappoint set-wise or score-wise, even though the script could use another revision before it goes to Broadway (which, inevitably, it will). The set, which featured a huge wall of TV screens mixed with antiwar posters and suburban iconography (shopping carts and 7-11 billboards), combined pop art and punk-rock pastiche. That, along with a score repurposed from Green Day’s album of the same name (plus a few added songs), was the major selling point of this production. It was certainly a knockout show.
6. Happy Days, California Shakespeare Theater. For his first staging of Beckett, director Jonathan Moscone opted for a lesser-known play that would require him to transform the stage of Bruns Amphitheater into a giant mound of dirt. Then he lost his lead actress, Marsha Mason, about two weeks before show time. Undeterred, Moscone recruited Patty Gallagher to play Winnie, the buoyant, chattering, misguided optimist who is buried waist deep — then neck deep — in the mound. And, lo and behold, Gallagher wrung the juice out of Beckett’s script, milking it for emotional vigor. She plays opposite Dan Hiatt, who has roughly 54 words (and several well-timed wheezes) as the driveling husband, Willie. Moscone injects humor with a theme-based soundtrack (which includes the theme song for 1970s sitcom Happy Days and “Oh Happy Day” by the Hawkins Family).
7. East 14th: Tales of a Reluctant Player, The Marsh Theatre. Most solo performances spawn from a messed-up childhood, and some succeed on the merits of that alone. But it takes real artistry to advance them from the level of just-okay to outright exhilarating. Don Reed’s got it: A knack for voiceovers (of his hustler father, pious stepfather, playa half-brother, and swishy stepbrother), a rubber-band body, elegant disco dance moves, and acute comic timing all contribute to the success of his show about growing up with a pimp father in 1970s East Oakland. It’s humorous and affecting, without a definitive moral compass. In fact, Reed portrays the members of his dysfunctional family as sympathetic characters.
8. Master and Margarita, Four Larks Theatre. It’s not often you get to see a full-fledged theatrical production in the subterranean depths of a West Oakland art gallery, particularly when the play involves a bathtub, aerial trapeze, and an upright piano, as well as fire antics. Four Larks Theatre made full use of the space when it descended on Ghost Town Gallery this summer version of Mikhail Bulgakov’s 1967 novel Master and Margarita. The company eschewed conventional narrative in favor of experimentation, requiring its audience to migrate from room to room (four rooms in all) in the gallery. The poet Ivan (played by Alessandro Rumie) spends most of the play painting a wall and gloomily covering up his work, while several powdered-wigged musicians play in a far corner. (A mix of weird waltzes and gypsy jazz, the music helps create a vaudevillian atmosphere.) As drama, it’s thoroughly disorienting. As art, it’s sublime.
9. See How We Are, Impact Theatre. This may have been the biggest year thus far for local writer-director Jon Tracy, who regaled us with a cadence opera based on Orwell’s Animal Farm and a highly imaginative Wizard of Oz (complete with Pink Floyd references). Tracy’s version of Sophocles’ Antigone outpaced his other work in artistic conception and intellectual rigor, even though it was the most overlooked by critics. Staged at Berkeley’s Impact Theatre, it featured a bleached-white set to represent the flattening effect of a dynasty that had ruled Thebes for generations. The Bank family resembles many tabloid counterparts, both in terms of star power and dysfunction. (For starters, patriarch Edward Bank sired four children by fucking his mother.) The actors (Seth Thygeson and Sarah Mitchell among them) revel in petty jealousies that mirror — and exacerbate — an ongoing civil war in Thebes. It’s a high-concept play, but the ideas all tie back to the source material.
10. Fat Pig, Aurora Theatre. Peter Ruocco gets his second chance to play a beguiling devil in this new Neil LaBute play about gender, relationships, and body-consciousness. Directed by Barbara Damashek, the play is as shrewd as it is cruel. Ruocco plays Carter, a classic pain-in-the-ass office gadfly who exerts social pressure on Tom (the equally excellent Jud Williford), a guy in a closet relationship with a fat girl (Lilian Klein). For all its talk of fat phobia and the degradation of women’s bodies, Fat Pig is just as much about men trying purge their insecurities. LaBute — who named Klein’s character, Helen, for another Helen who sparked a war — evidently contends that males choose their mates for the same reason that women primp themselves: To impress one another.