Best Of :: Arts & Entertainment
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.
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.