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Los Angeles Theater’s Best of 2015

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The year 2015 is slipping away into history, and more importantly into memory.

We are oblivious to the value of memory in our youth. Is it because our experience with it is so shallow at that time in our lives? Or perhaps it’s that those aspects which enhance memory’s worth: loss, regret, joy, pride have not yet entrenched themselves in our existences or etched themselves on our brows with those wrinkles wrought by reflection.

But age educates us as to the preciousness of our memories.

Loss is a big part of that melancholy lesson.

The loss of those whose presence we callously took for granted and the loss progress begets, where those things, so dear to us, are cheapened by the distain or disregard of the generation that is first hard on our heels and then surpasses us.

You come to a point where the realization burns over you, like the nova of the sun, that nothing is of greater worth than the memories you have created, cultivated, achieved and earned in life.

200-anna_christie.jpgFor when the time comes to leave the sunshine on your face, the wind in your hair, the smell of roses and babies and wet puppies, the taste of ice cream and the touch of those you love, that the only residuals of this joyous condition we call “life” that can make the journey with us, are those memories which we have claimed in the living of it.

So I am not going to close out the year with a list of what I thought were the best of this or the worst of that. I am going to end the year by expressing my heartfelt thanks to those wonderful talents and artists who have given me memories to cherish and hold tight to.
Perhaps because 2014 was such a wonderful year for performers and performances, 2015, at least for me, came in tentatively, as Shakespeare’s “well-graced actor” was leaving the stage.

So my first thank you must go The Odyssey Ensemble Theatre for the stunning staging of Eugene O’Neill’s ANNA CHRISTIE, which was the first of the year’s productions to hint of what was to come.

Produced by Beth Hogan and directed by Kim Rubinstein, on Wilson Chin’s wonderfully concentrated set, this production focused O’Neill’s language and story to its quintessence resulting in one of the most intensely powerful staging of the work I’ve ever experienced.

Mary Mara, Tait Ruppert, Kevin McKidd, and Jeff Perry playing the “father” to his actual daughter Zoe Perry in the title role all made this an unforgettable production while setting the bar dazzlingly high for all the year to follow.

Courtesy of The Odyssey

Courtesy of The Odyssey

The Odyssey would build on that opening offering a sharp and stylish staging of Pierre de Marivaux’s THE FALSE SERVANT directed by Bart DeLorenzo with Beth Hogan again at the helm as producer.

This was a first rate production on many a level, but topping that list was a devilishly delightful cast featuring Christian Leffler, Chastity Dotson, Cody Chappel, Barry Del Sherman, Matthew Bazulka (a manic marvel of mischief) and Dorie Barton.

A standout performance by Nadége August in Playwright Dominique Morisseau’s SUNSET BABY, as well the year’s best evening of cabaret with JULIA MIGENES SINGS KURT WEILL (pictured above), and a vibrant staging of Clifford Odets’ AWAKE & SING directed by Elina de Santos with David Agranov, Richard Fancy, Robert Lesser, Dennis Madden, Allan Miller, James Morosini, Melissa Paladino, Gary Patent, Melissa Weber Bales and the incomparable Marilyn Fox all added feathers to Ron Sossi’s bonnet which by this time is so full it must often be mistaken for a stampeding heard of aviaries.

Other venues, which I have come to count on like trusted friends, did not disappoint either.

High on that list is The Fountain Theatre, that for nearly two decades has under Deborah Lawlor’s guidance offered the FOREVER FLAMENCO SERIES, unquestionably the nation’s foremost peña, and undeniably one of the best tickets in Los Angeles.

The Fountain also staged CITIZEN: AN AMERICAN LYRIC a remarkable bonding of poetry and dance superbly directed by Shirley Jo Finney and adapted by Stephen Sachs from Claudia Rankine’s poetic tome of the same title and recipient of the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Pen Open Book Award among others.

Philip Solomon-Thomas Silcott

(l-r) Philip Solomon and Thomas Silcott (Photo by Ed Kreiger)

Ms. Rankine’s impressionist verse-canvas of colliding incidents, insults and injustices in the struggle for racial equality melded with the talents of Bernard K. Addison, Leith Burke, Tina Lifford, Tony Maggio, Lisa Pescia and Simone Missick to create exceptional theatre.
The Fountain then went on to close their year with Athol Fugard’s THE PAINTED ROCKS AT REVOLVER CREEK, part poetic prayer, part trembling plea for his suffering South African homeland with performances by Gilbert Glenn Brown, Thomas Silcott, Suanne Spoke and—overwhelming audiences with the promise of things to come from—a young actor named Philip Solomon.

The Echo Theatre Company gave us Leandro Cano’s remarkably realized performance as Billy, “Mound of Clouds” in Miki Johnson’s AMERICAN FALLS, as well as one of the most memorable small plays of the season, Adam Bock’s A SMALL FIRE directed by Alana Dietze, who in her strong directorial debut availed herself of every droplet of the piece’s potency with a skilled proficiency. Chiseled by Matt Richter’s sure light design and supported by the excellent ensemble of Michael Mantell, Steven O’Mahoney and Mackenzie Kyle, Bock’s inspiring tale of courage before that cavernous darkness that awaits us was brought close to perfection by the sincere and honest performance of Lily Knight.

Mackenzie Kyle-Lily Knight-A Small Fire

Mackenzie Kyle and Lily Knight in ‘A Small Fire’ (photo by Darrett Sanders)

MAN COVETS BIRD, Finegan Kruckemeyer’s parable about a young man, a bird and modern alienation was transformed by director Debbie Devine and Leeav Sofer into a simple but haunting musical, at 24th Street Theatre, one of the gems in the crown of L.A. theatre.

The Doma Theatre Company, that little powerhouse off Santa Monica Boulevard whose mission statement is to stage first rate productions of big Broadway musicals at ticket prices that won’t have your wallet singing a funeral dirge, had a success in their staging of JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR.

Director Marco Gomez can be applauded for not following the standard pathways of staging and casting in attempting to brush away the cobwebs that tend to gather on any “classic.”

Also to be applauded is Kelly Brighton whose ringing voice I imagined ruffled the wings of the angels in the role of Pontius Pilate.

AMERICAN IDIOT, another Doma success provided Jess Ford the opportunity to shine with diamond brilliance.

Long Beach’s International City Theatre brought August Wilson’s FENCES to audiences giving Michael A. Shepperd a chance to reinforce his growing reputation as one of the regions truest talents.

The Antaeus Theatre Company who boasts perhaps the strongest acting talent in the city and whose productions never disappoint served up solid and supremely crafted mountings of HENRY IV, PART I directed with polish by Michael Murray with an outstanding Falstaff in Gregory Itzin, and William Inge’s old warhorse PICNIC which treated audiences to exceptional work by Gigi Bermingham, Eve Gordon and John DeMita.

Steven Fechter’s THE WOODSMAN was offered by the Coeurage Theatre Company, admired by all for their dedication in bringing theatre to a wider audience with their standing box office policy of “pay what you want.”

uandme1.jpgZombie Joe’s Underground Theatre Group, which is without question L.A.’s most twisted and adventurous company, staged Colin Mitchell’s smart and beautifully realized homage to Grand Guignol, MADNESS! MURDER! MAYHEM! meticulously directed by Jana Wimer with Jonica Patella, Vincent Cusimano, Alex Walters and Ken MacFarlane providing some bloody good performances.

THE HOLLYWOOD FRINGE arrived in June, presenting hundreds of shows of which I gorged myself on 63.

It is a magnificent opportunity to be both dazzled and humbled by the intensity and breadth of the creative energy which is the nucleus of this city.

My pick for BEST OF THE FRINGE went to BLOOD: A VOODOO LOVE STORY, Michael Phillip Edwards’ twisted, sensual, scary, strikingly clever, viciously funny, marginally pornographic morality tale with tour-de-force performances by Phrederic Semaj and Maria Tomas. An honorable mention goes to U AND ME AND MY BEST FRIEND P that one woman show by a tornado of neuroses and talent known as Abby Schachner.

I gave BEST COMEDY to Mauricio Gomez, Jeff Heapy, Alec Tomkiw and Cassandra Gonzales for their absolutely inspired swashbuckling silliness THE THREE MUSKETEERERS: CLOWNS WITH SWORDS.

There was an embarrassment of riches in musical offerings of this year’s Fringe with the splendid opera ANNABELLA by Sam Johnides and Tony Gonzalez who have the promise of the spectacular about them.

Keri Safran’s STUPID SONGS!, which extended to fifteen professional singers the golden dream of totally trashing their profession, and consisted of, among other ditties, Sarah Wolter and Gabriel Oliva’s snappy little duet “My Neighbor” about the pesky problem of having a serial killer living next door to you; Laura Michelle Hughes singing, “Montana” which asks the musical question, “Montana – 41st state or cartographic fraud?” and Sara Cravens, romantic tune about a girl who believes her boyfriend may be seeing another girl entitled, “Smell Yo Dick.”

House of Rabbits-Play

Courtesy of House of Rabbits

Producer/director Janet Miller’s splendid mounting of Stephen Sondheim’s 1980 MARRY ME A LITTLE featured David Laffey and Jessie Withers. My pick for BEST MUSICAL was HOUSE OF RABBITS’ CHARIVARI IN VOYEURVILLEdeveloped by Brandon Baruch and directed by Baruch and Kyle Johnston which they described as a: “Hardcore-Vaudeville/Art-Rock band.”

There were shows of staggering uniqueness such as REVOLUTIONARY LOVE a celebration of the life and work of Turkish poet and social activist Nazim Hikmet structured as an operetta of poetry by director Fulya Diner and centered on Bryson Allman’s stunning performance.
GLITCHES IN REALITY, magician and slight of hand artist Simon Coronel’s amazing show that placed him in the league of Ricky Jay.

The Proboscis Theater Company’s LA LA LA STRADA in which director Jeff Mills used dance, music and puppetry and Federico Fellini’s 1954 film La Strada to explore the nature of the artist and the creative process.

Of the many wonderful performances by actresses, the stand-outs for me were Bella Merlin as one of history’s most engaging and tasty tarts in her NELL GWYNNE: A DRAMATICK ESSAYE ON ACTING AND PROSTITUTION; Brittany Kilcoyne Mcgregor in director Joseph Matarrese’s superb ANOUILH’S ANTIGONE; (Mcgregor shared in a three way tie along with Bella Merlin and Maria Tomas for BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTRESS. Hey, it happens!)

There was also fantastic work done by Rebecca Lincoln in ANNA IN THE DARKNESS which proved to be the first jaw dropper of the Fringe for me, but far from the last; Penny Pollak’s merry descent into hell in her NO TRAVELER; Laura Carson in BOOZE, BALLS AND BLUEGRASS and Cyanne McClairian in her one woman show, I DIED…I CAME BACK…WHATEVER.

Fine showings by actors were not short either, with outstanding performances from Tyler Peck in ANOUILH’S ANTIGONE, Christopher Piehler in RESERVE CHAMPION and Ryan Vincent Anderson in playwright Rick Creese’s BRIGHT SWORDS a solid and intelligent bio of Ira Aldridge the great black Shakespearean actor of the 19th century.

Darin Dahms-The Player King

Darin Dahms in ‘The Player King’

But the height of the Fringe Fest for me were Darin Dahms my call for BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTOR for his THE PLAYER KING his solo rendering on the great American actor Edwin Booth, and a show of such merit it deserves a place in the Smithsonian; Bill Oberst Jr. who was my pick for BEST SOLO PERFORMANCE for his riveting staging of Ray Bradbury’s PILLAR OF FIRE; and Cliff Todd who took the JUDGE’S PICK AWARD for his gem of a show THE LEGEND OF BOBBY DARRIN. My lovely wife Marlene didn’t know who Bobby Darrin was. After a half hour of YouTube she pronounced Cliff made a better Bobby.

Swear, just sitting here and remembering the Fringe Fest has my head spinning, as my dear Aunt Grace would say, “like a hoe wacked goose.”

Now the other great moments and memories are pouring to mind:

Producer Jon Imparato and director Mark Bringelson’s fine production at the LGBT Center of Mike Kindle’s STANLEY ANN: THE UNLIKELY STORY OF BARACK OBAMA’S MOTHER which showcased the talents (as if they needed showcasing) of Ann Noble one of L.A.’s brightest talents.

Contributing to the show’s success was the strong combination of Robert Selander’s beautiful set, Matt Richter’s crafted light design and Christopher Moscartiello’s skillful sound score.

THE PRINCES OF KINGS ROAD-Ensemble Studio Theatre

Photo Courtesy of Ensemble Studio Theatre

Playwright and director Tom Lazarus looked to L.A.’s architectural history for THE PRINCES OF KINGS ROAD, a skillfully staged effort aided by the strong ensemble work of John Nielsen, Raymond Xifo and Heather Robinson.

Wendy Graf’s lucid and emotionally truthful ALL AMERICAN GIRL a tale of domestic terrorism devoid of any tabloid hysteria directed by Anita Khanzadiana with a stellar performance by Jeanne Syquia.

Wendy MacLeod’s mad-cap, Freudian sitcom HOUSE OF YES celebrated its 25th anniversary in a first rate staging by Producer Margie Mintz and Director Lee Sankowich with impeccable work by Eileen T’Kaye, Nicholas McDonald, Kate Maher, Colin McGurk and Jeanne Syquia, all aided by Adam Haas Hunter’s excellent set, Rebecca Raines’ lighting design and Norman Kern’s sound work.

Then there was John Posey’s exceptionally touching and well crafted solo show at the Whitefire Theatre FATHER, SON AND HOLY COACH which reminded me never to judge a book, or a show, by its cover.

RECORDED IN HOLLYWOOD: THE MUSICAL, highlighted another fascinating tale drawn from L.A. history in the story of John Dolphin’s fight against racism and the LAPD with marvelous work by composer and lyricist Andy Cooper.

Mary Lou Newmark’s musical parable BREATHING ROOM with Eileen T’Kaye and Charles Reese was a work both disarmingly playful and beautifully subversive that graced the stage at the Greenway Court Theatre.

It was a year of tremendous efforts and achievements for theatre in Los Angeles; efforts and achievements that attest to this city’s standing as one of the major theatrical centers of the world, and “arguably” the major center nationally.
Wait – correction – cross out “arguably.”

The only thing that distracts from L.A.’s claim of being a “Great Theatre City” is the lack of a “great audience.” The fault for this lies with our own community’s diffidence, the media’s indifference and the shortsightedness of our city’s bureaucracy.

Wow.

Remembering the performances, the moments and evenings of this past year sitting in the theatres of Los Angeles all I can say is, “Wow.”

Well that and “thank you.”

“Thank you” to all the actors, playwrights, producers, set builders, costumers, lighting technicians, stage managers, puppeteers, video designers, composers, prop designers, artistic directors, publicists, house managers, scenic designers, box office personnel, sound designers, technical directors, program designers, production artists, dramaturges and crews; thank you Jennifer Palumbo, Ernest William Lidderdale, Enci, Debbie Devine, James Bennett, Sally Essex-Lopresti, Stina Pederson. Rachel Tyler, Aaron Lyons, Michelle Hunter, Victoria Mudd, Elizabeth Yng-Wong, Matthew Quinn, Scott Tuomey, Lucy Pollak, Doug Haverty, Beth Mack, Terri Roberts, Mark Freeman, Jay McAdams, Julie Lawrence, Julie Ferrin, Ezra Buzzington, Ken Werther, Michael Herring and the many, many others for all the memories I shall treasure.

What’d say, shall we do it again in 2016?

♦   ♦   ♦

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An award-winning L.A. playwright and rabble-rouser of note who has hoisted glasses with Orson Welles, been arrested on three continents and once beat up Charlie Manson. His first play, Among the Vipers was a semi-finalist in the Julie Harris Playwriting Competition and was featured in the Carnegie-Mellon Showcase of New Plays. It was produced at the NPT Theater in Ashland, Oregon and Los Angeles’ celebrated Odyssey Ensemble Theatre. His following play, “The Little Boy Who Loved Monsters” was produced at The Hollywood Actors Theater, where he earned praise from the Los Angeles Times for his “…inordinately creative writing.” The play went on to numerous other productions including Berlin’s The Black Theatre under the direction of Rainer Fassbinder who wrote in his program notes of Kearney, “He is a skilled playwright, but more importantly he is a dangerous one.” Ernest Kearney has worked as literary manager or as dramaturge for among others The Hudson Theater Guild, Nova Diem and the Odyssey Ensemble Theatre, where he still serves on the play selection committee. He has been the recipient of two Dramalogue Awards and a finalist or semi-finalist three times in the Julie Harris Playwriting Competition. His work has been performed by Michael Dunn, Sandra Tsing Loh, Jack Colvin and Billy Bob Thornton, and to date, either as playwright or director, he has upwards of a hundred and thirty productions under his belt, including a few at the Bob Baker Marionette Theater as puppeteer. After a wild and misspent youth, which lasted well into middle age, Kearney has settled down and is focusing on his writing, as well as living happily ever after with his lovely wife Marlene. Ernest's stage reviews and social essays can be found at TheTVolution.com and workingauthor.com. Follow him on Facebook.

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