Best Of :: Arts & Entertainment
When Itzen first walked onstage in Donald Margulies' Shipwrecked! at South Coast Repertory, some audience members probably did a double-take: Isn't that the fumbling, spineless President Logan of 24 onstage? But the instant he opened his mouth, Itzen drew the audience into the spellbindingly ambiguous world of his character, a raconteur with a gift for gab and a host of spectacularly outrageous stories. He was charming, sympathetic and thoroughly likeable—even if he was lying through his teeth the entire time. Margulies' play was about memories and stories, and who owns the right to both; Itzen's uncompromisingly insistent portrayal made the show sing. He wasn't just flat-out entertaining, he was also living proof that theater will always matter because, at its simplest and most sublime, it's all about the spoken word, the fundamental building block of mankind's greatest creative achievement: storytelling.
Mark Majarian and the rest of this community college's theater department deserve a chorus of hosannas for launching and growing a new-play festival as strong as any in Southern California. This year marked the 13th installment of the summer event, which has premiered or helped develop more than 70 plays. Many of the writers—and several of the plays—have subsequently received full-fledged productions at regional and off-Broadway theaters. While that's a worthy feat to crow about, it's secondary to what makes new-play festivals such as Cypress' truly meaningful: They provide encouragement and incentive to playwrights, a strange breed of animal that chooses to work in an artistic field where recognition is hard to come by and financial compensation nearly impossible.
The singer always gets the headlines, and it was Van Zeiler's commanding turn as Hank Williams Sr. that drew the rave notices in this show. Great work, no doubt, but ringers in the lead role aren't uncommon in musicals. However, though full or partial versions of more than 20 Williams songs were included, this Randal Myler-and-Mark Harelik piece (Myler also directed) was much more than a musical revue or nostalgic stroll down the hillbilly highway. The duo did a fine job of not only tracing the trajectory of Williams' rise to fame and harrowing fall, but also capturing his aching humanity and singular genius. Anyone who walked out of the performance not realizing that Williams was every bit an American original as Louis Armstrong or Levi's wasn't paying attention.
She earned this laurel last year for her body of work over the past 10 years. But this year, Gehringer added to her already-sparkling résumé with her multilayered turn in South Coast Repertory's Doubt as an über-controlling nun in John Patrick Shanley's riveting play about secrets and lies at a Catholic school in 1964. Even more impressive is that, physically, Gehringer's slender frame and classic beauty didn't fit the image of a taciturn, ultra-conservative nun who would seem more comfortable wielding a ruler than quoting from First Corinthians. Although she nailed the rigid, black-and-white aspects of her character's personality, what made her performance resonate were the unexpected subtleties she found in the role, such as grace, dignity and a powerful (if disturbing) passion to find some sense of order in a seemingly chaotic universe.
Orange County has served as a sort of halfway house for some great writers, thanks mainly to some fine academic programs at area colleges (Michael Chabon, Aimee Bender, Richard Ford and Alice Sebold are among the literati hatched at UC Irvine's MFA writers' program). But there are authors of national rank squirreled away in every corner of the county writing in every genre. Start asking around, and everybody's got a favorite. Lots of us love T. Jefferson's Parker's noir-ish mysteries. Former Mater Dei and El Toro High English teacher Elizabeth George has a following for her Inspector Lynley mystery series. Canadian expat and current Laguna Beacher Lisi Harrison's "Clique" series strikes readers of a certain (tender) age, with its "bratfests" and backstabbing teen queens. UCI writing prof Michelle Latiolais' exploration of autism and redemption, A Proper Knowledge, has gained an audience among those who like their thoughts provoked. But for our money, Ron Carlson gives the best reads, taking the mysteries and absurdities of everyday life and turning them into meaningful narratives. With more honors than a war hero, Carlson embraces the modern American West and the relationships—especially the sexual relationships—between its denizens. We're fans of his 2007 novel, Five Skies, with its shiftless preparation for what amounts to a flying leap. And we're fond of his short stories that feature sailing mattresses, wife-stealing bigfoots and frustrated couples-with-children who are just too busy to fuck. Carlson's also good at explaining his craft—see his introduction to the short story collection A Kind of Flying—which is probably why so many brilliant writers come out of his UCI creative-writing program. Our only complaint? The stories don't come quickly enough.
Nobody has seen the underbelly of Orange County like we have, so we've got to admit that Los Angeles Times reporter Christopher Goffard nailed it with his crime-noir novel Snitch Jacket. The cover images for the paperback edition, which is out now, leave no doubt that Goffard's tale won't win Chamber of Commerce approval. There are two less-than-flattering photographs of deteriorating, single-story shops on a portion of Costa Mesa's Harbor Boulevard that has been unable to emerge from the 1960s. As a gift to those of us who appreciate dark humor, a lone, nearly dead palm tree helps frame one picture. With that backdrop, Goffard—who writes for his paper's Orange County edition—has imagined a world set in the Greasy Tuesday, a bar that brings together characters such as overeducated misfit Benny Bunt, a 41-year-old dishwasher and snitch, and ex-con bouncer Gus "Mad Dog" Miller. We're not going to tell you what happens. Read the book. If you like Carl Hiaasen and Elmore Leonard, you'll dig Goffard, too.