As already mentioned in this publication a couple of months ago, the greatest theatrical event of 2007—if not the new millennium—was the royal pantomime conducted by the noble Fred Willard and his plucky band of sketch-comedy artists at Stages Theatre in October.
But that doesn't mean the rest of the year lacked memorable moments-both good and bad.
There were splendid ensemble performances, like the uproariously enthusiastic cast of Urinetown! at the Maverick Theater, which made an already exceptionally funny anti-musical even more enjoyable. There was the obviously demented cast of Rude Guerrilla's production of Mercury Fur, the darkest play of the year brought to grisly life by committed performances. And don't forget the casts of musicals such as Sunday in the Park With George (Chance Theatre), The Full Monty (Hunger Artists) and Bat Boy (Stages).
Some supporting performances were so spot-on they nearly stole their respective shows: Lowe Taylor's ravishingly talented Dot in Sunday in the Park With George; David Beatty's homeless con man, who seemed to have stepped right off the pages of Grant Morrison's The Invisibles, in Rude Guerilla's It's the End of the World As We Know It; And Darri Kristin's turn as the least-eccentric member of a quite-quirky clan in You Can't Take It With You; Christopher Spencer as the corrupt, piss-obsessed mayor in Urinetown!
There were also some lead performances that were more enjoyable than tater tots fresh from the oven: Hamish Linklater in the lead role of South Coast Repertory's Hamlet, a performance that channeled Walt Whitman (he contained multitudes); the mesmerizing Gregory Itzen's raconteur/con man/enlightened soul in Shipwrecked! at SCR; Mark Coyan's chillingly sympathetic murderer in the Hunger Artists' Woyzeck; Daniel Dawson's blood-sucking freak with a soul in Bat Boy; Linda Gehringer's morally indignant nun in SCR's Doubt; and Juan Ramirez's morally drifting coyoté in his Revelations at the Breath of Fire Latina Ensemble.
There weren't as many solid new plays as one would like-how could there be, when every storefront either seemed to be doing a musical or Neil Simon? But there were at least two and a half: Jeremy Gable's frenetic adaptation of Georg Buchner's Woyzeck had depth and laughs and a giant chicken. Donald Margulies' Shipwrecked! was a deceptively deep play about the power of stories and vagaries of memory. And even though it premiered a year ago in San Francisco, the Southern California debut of David Rambo's The Ice Breaker at the Laguna Playhouse proved that even science can be sexy.
Musicals elicited many salutes: The Chance's Sunday In the Park With George was a very polished effort with an impressive projection design courtesy of John MacDonald; the Hunger Artists' The Full Monty combined great acting and singing in a cast paced by dual leads Jason Lythgoe and Mark Palkoner; and you couldn't help but love the quirky musicals Urinetown! and Bat Boy.
With so many good musicals, it was kind of easy to miss the straight plays, but one impossible to forget was John Patrick Shanley's Doubt, a 90-minute tour de force that surely ranks among the most economical plays ever written. If you missed SCR's Martin Benson-directed production, you missed something very special indeed.
But in a year when much of the best work on the county's stages wound up in musicals, it's fitting that a play that used music to help tell its story-as opposed to being a straight-on musical, with dancing and characters erupting into songs-proved to be the most flat-out entertaining: the Laguna Playhouse's homage to Hank Williams Sr., Lost Highway.
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And now, five unfortunate memories:
1. Hamlet,SCR. Great Hamlet, boring Hamlet. Dan Sullivan is one of the most accomplished directors in America, but this effort contained all the passion and urgency of an accounting seminar. With such a great play and such a great cast, why was this play so incredibly dull?
2. The Chihuahua in Noises Off, Maverick Theater. First rule of showbiz: Always leave them wanting more. Second rule of showbiz: Don't work with kids or dogs. Especially ones from outer space.
3-5. Neil Fucking Simon. Three of the county's most established storefront theaters produced Simon plays this year: the Chance, Stages and the Hunger Artists. That's just sad. Hopefully, we'll be spared a further drift into middle-aged community-theater status by these troupes next year. What's that? Stages' first play of 2008 is Rumors? Oh, well . . . make 'em laugh, kids.