Best Of :: Arts & Entertainment
There couldn't have been a better choice to head the Grand Central Art Center in downtown Santa Ana in 2011 than John Spiak. Not only had he earned nationwide attention as curator at the Arizona State University Art Museum in Tempe for awesome exhibits and vigorous outreach efforts to the public, but Spiak is also an OC boy, and he was itching to go home. He has immediately impressed since getting the job, staging exhibits that actually bring in crowds, picking artists-in-residence who focus on community projects and emerging as a peacemaker in Santa Ana's brutal gentrification wars. And you'll never meet a nicer, softer-spoken, less-presumptuous art nerd than Spiak—when he says he loves the city in its entirety, from the hipsters to the quinceañera shops, you not only believe him, but you also immediately want to buy whatever artwork he suggests.
It's often said that portraying a character with a disability is one of the easiest routes an actor can take to draw rave reviews. Whether that's true or not, it seems that one of the most difficult feats is to portray a real, larger-than-life character whose personality is engrained into the popular consciousness. That's why Robert Edwards' turn as the formidable Orson Welles in Orson's Shadow was such a triumph. He lacked the body mass of the porcine Welles, but Edwards more than made up for that through his booming voice and, most important, a keen ability to capture the fascinatingly complex personality—from a joyfully wicked wit to a gargantuan ego—of this giant of stage and screen. It helped to make the flawed Austin Pendleton play, produced by the Alive Theatre at the Long Beach City Playhouse, a delight to observe.
Under director (and OC Weekly arts writer) Dave Barton's direction, every character in Mark Ravenhill's wickedly funny pool (no water) carried his or her own bright torch. But the one who shined the brightest in this Monkey Wrench Collective production at South Coast Repertory was Lamprinos, in the lead role of a successful visual artist whose fame drives her once-close-knit friends bat-shit crazy. Lamprinos was mesmerizing throughout, but probably most so when she didn't say a word. For much of the play, her character was in a medically induced coma while being brutalized by her friends in the supposed interest of art. When she finally came to and realized the horror her friends had inflicted on her, her rage and, surprisingly, mercy were palpable.
The world premiere of Catherine Trieschmann's play at South Coast Repertory drew more attention for putting the battle between creationism and evolution in public schools under the dramaturgical lens. But, while filled with some juicily packaged polemics about the rather warped views of anti-science Middle America, How the World Began was about things personal as much as political. An Ivy League-educated teacher seeks to rebuild her life in a small Kansas town that's trying to rebuild after a devastating tornado. Characters reeling from trauma converge, and through an apparently innocuous remark in a science class, a firestorm sweeps across the town. The play ultimately becomes not so much about politics, but rather the importance of tolerance.
Honorable mention goes to the Maverick Theater's The Legend of Robin Hood; Nathan Makaryk's innovative retelling captured the men-in-tights style of the legendary tale, but was as much a metaphor on contemporary America as a classic fable.
Shitty plays generally don't earn Pulitzer Prizes, so it wasn't astonishing that Suzan-Lori Parks' 2002 Topdog/Underdog kept viewers' attention. But this Susan Seret-directed piece, staged at South Coast Repertory, didn't just make you pay notice; it grabbed you by the throat and forced attention. The two-person character study about brothers trying to reject—and embrace—street-level hustling offered a rich perspective on life in inner-city black America, something sorely lacking in our black-free county. But the combination of Parks' street-poetry-infused writing and the dynamic performances of Larry Bates and Curtis McClarin elevated it above the topic of color and into the discussion of nothing short of the American dream, in all its red, white and blue illusion.
An honorable mention for best play goes to the Brian Newell-directed Frost/Nixon at the Maverick Theater. Newell's novel staging, which incorporated live video alongside his stellar cast, made for a gripping production.
This category could just as easily be Best Director for Oanh Nguyen. No, he didn't choreograph or light the Chance Theater's gripping and sensual staging of West Side Story, one of the most seasoned chestnuts in the pantry of American theater, but Nguyen picked the people who did, and his ability to weave their terrific efforts into this story made for a riveting production. Kelly Todd's sinewy, writhing choreography masterfully captured the bursting hormones of the young men and women at the center of this play's timeless conflict, and lighting designer KC Wilkerson took full advantage of the LEDs (according to the program, this was one of the "world's first shows in which LED lighting has replaced all conventional lighting"). This arsenal gave Wilkerson the opportunity to drench her design with textures and colors that eliminated unsightly flat or dark patches and, via technology, gave the proceedings a natural, realistic feel. Actors are conditioned to find their light, but rarely does that light actually strengthen and even comment upon their performances.
Any play featuring an actor as recognizable as Charlie Robinson (who played court clerk Mac on the long-running TV show Night Court) already has a strong lineup. Robinson's proud, patriarchal Becker was the central character in August Wilson's poignant, gripping play Jitney, set in an independent cab station in Pittsburgh in 1977. But the seven actors surrounding him more than stood their ground. Effortlessly directed by Ron OJ Parson, each performer captured what is perhaps the most important aspect in staging a Wilson play: the rich sound of his dialogue, which reveals character as much as the actual words. Whether verbally assaulting one another or bonding over their uncertain futures, this was ensemble work at its most rhythmic.
Costa Mesa gets the big plays and big talent at South Coast Repertory and the Orange County Performing Arts Center, but when you consider the range and diversity of the theaters in Fullerton, it's impossible to not call this town the Off-Broadway of Orange County. The county's longest established storefront theater, STAGEStheatre (20 years and going strong) is here. The second-longest established storefront, the Hunger Artists, is here. Brian Newell's cinematic-infused Maverick Theater is here. The bustling theater departments of Fullerton College and Cal State Fullerton are here. OC Weekly theater critic Joel Beers lives here. And if you want real-live street theater, just check out the douchebags and hootchie mamas who line the downtown streets every weekend.
After three years, OC Weekly finally dedicated a feature to Marla Ladd's frenetic theater company (see "Holy Host," June 29), but this august publication has yet to review a show at her digs, housed on the campus of the very forward-thinking Church of the Foothills. Maybe it's because there's so much to choose from: This year alone, Mysterium Theater was scheduled to mount 24 productions, ranging from the sexually charged Spring Awakening and the (hopefully) not sexually charged Charlotte's Web to a summer series of Shakespeare plays that included a woman playing the titular role of Othello as a woman. The need to pay the bills accounts for the heavy programming schedule, and the hope in this quarter is that Ladd and her incredibly enthusiastic band of thespians keep on truckin' until we finally get around to choosing an actual show to review.
While other community theaters are programming the umpteenth production of The Odd Couple, there's one that's aiming a little higher. Composed of two theaters, the bowling alley-long Mainstage downstairs and the more adventurous Equity-waiver Studio upstairs, both houses of the Long Beach Playhouse have taken more chances in their programming under the leadership of producing artistic director Andrew Vonderschmitt. While the 200-seat Mainstage still aims to please the bluehairs with musicals and established classics such as Into the Woods, The Glass Menagerie and To Kill a Mockingbird, it also slips in the occasional surprise, such as Rolin Jones' The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow. Upstairs, you'll find even riskier fare, with playwrights as diverse as Euripides, Thomas Middleton, Jose Rivera, David Mamet, Eric Overmyer and Christopher Durang, making for a consistently button-pushing season. Cheers to Vonderschmitt and staff—who have all met with some push-back from the theater's entrenched patrons—and here's hoping for even riskier choices in the future, as well as the new, more youthful audiences who deserve them.
When the wiseacre, little black rain cloud tells you "it's who you know" that gets you somewhere in the arts—as opposed to talent or skill—they're right, but for those struggling artists . . . struggling and starving . . . there is, hidden away on ARTS Orange County's website, a little-known index of grants, jobs and career listings with some of the loosest slots in local nonprofits. Start applying!
In a coup of programming, every month or so, Irvine Barclay Theatre and ARTS Orange County host performances filmed on London's National Theatre stages, in front of a live audience, and broadcasts them for a mere $20 per ticket. Top-quality British talent from Oscar winner Helen Mirren to Julie Walters and Rory Kinnear, with directors as diverse as Danny Boyle or the National's artistic director, Nicholas Hytner, make regular appearances. Much as with the broadcasts of the New York Metropolitan Opera that periodically screen in local movie theaters, the plays are seamlessly directed and skillfully shot, losing not an iota of immediacy—in part because of the quality of the productions, but also because you're surrounded by audience members in a darkened, comfortable theater, all watching on a giant screen centrally located in Irvine, near the UC Irvine campus.