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The Best 2016 L.A. Theatre Productions

You need valleys.

Without valleys how can you appreciate the heights of hills?

For me 2016 was a valley, 2014 and 2015 both hills.

That’s not to say 2016 lacked stand-out productions and performances, however, they were fewer and farther between.

So without much rhyme, but packing plenty of reason, here are my picks for the best of the year; starting off with two companies that even in the season’s creative drought managed to be rainmakers…

The Odyssey Theatre Ensemble offered up some mediocre fare this year and was burdened by some dismal “guest productions,” but whenever they got the match to light and applied the fuse you could count on a very big bang coming.

In the past, John Farmanesh-Bocca and his Not Man Apart Physical Theatre Ensemble impressed me.

This year with his Tempest Redux which premiered at the Odyssey he managed to impress me while simultaneously pissing me off.

His dark, brooding defamiliarization “re-working of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, co-produced with The New American Theatre left a bad taste in my mouth. Still bad taste or not, Farmanesh-Bocca’s direction brimmed with boldness that brought fresh insights to Shakespeare’s tale and even pulled a solid performance out of Jack Stehlin as Prospero.

John Posey’s heartfelt one man show, Father, Son and Holy Coach, made my list of best shows when it played at the Whitefire Theatre a year or so back, and the revival at the Odyssey made this year’s list due in large part to Posey’s matchless performance.

Haile D'Alan as the Hairy Ape-Eugene O'Neill

Jeremiah O’Brian, Joseph Gilbert, Andres Paul Ramacho, Hailé D’Alan, Anthony Rutowicz (Photo by Enci Box – Courtesy of Odyssey Ensemble)

The Odyssey also scored with Steven Berkoff’s stripped down and stylishly choreographed Hairy ApeThe play is by Eugene O’Neill, but the production was unadulterated Berkoff, and frankly O’Neill’s rather dated work was better off for it.

With Beth Hogan as producer, Berkoff’s robust direction brushed aside the linguistic clutter clearing the stage to accommodate the vigorous presence of perhaps the tightest ensemble the season had to offer with Dennis Gersten, Paul Stanko, Katy Davis, Benjamin Davies, Joseph Gilbert, Jeremiah O’Brian, Andres Paul Ramacho, Anthony Rutowicz and the ever-lovely Jennifer Taub in perfect sync with Haile D’Alan’s raging as the “hairy ape” of the title.

Atwater’s The Echo Theater Company boasted a strong season owing to their consistently strong casting, an art of which, they have become masters.

It was fitting on the night the first presidential debate was held that I was in the audience for Blueberry Toast, Mary Laws’ blood splattered indictment of the American dream on meth.  While the play itself was a composition pretty much by the numbers, and numbers kept within the boundaries of “simple arithmetic”, director Dustin Willis, with fight choreographer. Ahmed Best, showed his chops in orchestrating a staging surfeit of gleeful butchery.

Providing the show’s rocket fuel was Jacqueline Wright as Barb, the suburban homemaker with a platter of yummy blueberry toast in one hand and a very sharp kitchen knife in the other.   Wright’s metamorphosis stripped away the Norman Rockwell veneer of the cheerful housewife until exposing her inner child.

Unfortunately, her inner child was the Zuni fetish doll ala Karen Black from Trilogy of Terror.

Continuing with the theme of “Man is to man a wolf, and watch out for the ladies too,” The Echo next removed the muzzle from and unleashed Erik Patterson’s One of the Nice Ones which despite its title was pretty much devoid of any niceness whatsoever.

One of the Nice Ones-Rebecca Gray-Tara Karsian

Rebecca Gray and Tara Karsian in ‘One of the Nice Ones’ (Photo by Darrett Sanders – Courtesy of Echo Theater Company)

Patterson’s play was a perturbing concoction that paired the cartoon strip “Gilbert” with Sartre’s No Exit and you’d had been hard pressed to find a slicker, more malignant production or one that was funnier.  Director Chris Field was the maestro of mayhem on a beautifully devised set by Amanda Knehanst;  Graham Hamilton played the ruthless boss with a heart of radioactive flesh eating bacteria, with Rodney To, the office nerd who viewed the world with the eyes of a sexually abused Keane painting and Tara Karsian featured as the Deus ex machina from the bowels of hell.

But gob smacking the audience silly was Rebecca Gray whose performance bounced back and forth between brutal and bewitching like a rabid Superball.

According to informal exit polls one half of the audience’s members surveyed reported they had found Patterson’s play “despicable.”  However, asked the same question the other half of the audience, they responded that they found the play “Very, very fun.  And despicable.”

The Echo succeeded in knocking one out of the park with Dryland by Ruby Rae Spiegel which delivered a powerful rejoinder against the continuing assault on the reproductive rights of women in America.  Set in the shower room of a high school pool, Alana Dietze directed this grueling drama with a clinical detachment, underplaying the graphic horrors depicted on stage in a fashion assuring it would stay with audiences long after they left the theatre.

Amanda Knehans, again, met the needs of the setting so precisely that some in attendance swore they caught the stench of damp towels.

Teagan Rose played the most popular girl of a Florida high school’s in-crowd with Connor Kelly-Eiding as the awkward newly transferred student.

Connor Kelly Eiding-Teagan Rose

Connor Kelly Eiding and Teagan Rose (Photo by Darrett Sanders – Courtesy of Echo Theater Company)

If any reviewer out there didn’t find Rose and Kelly-Eiding’s work among the years most stellar performances – they should batter their keyboard flat with a blunt object and bury it in their backyard, because they’re wrong.

Long Beach’s International City Theatre mounts solid productions designed to please audiences who for the most part probably purchased their first cars when Eisenhower was president.  Generally I find their shows are to be admired if seldom celebrated.

Their staging of Lee Blessing’s A Walk in the Woods, a Cold War drama, that like most of Blessing’s plays, is well crafted but drama-lite, proved the exception.

David Nevell, Tony Abatemarco, Walk in the Woods,

Tony Abatemarco and David Nevell (Photo by Tracey Roman – Courtesy of LBICT)

Director John Henry Davis has had his name connected to some very abysmal shows (Dr. Anonymous at the Zephyr), but like the Bruce’s spider, his tenacity paid off and from a sow’s play a silken purse of fragile beauty was fashioned.  The performances of David Nevell as the uptight American arms negotiator and Tony Abatemarco as his Russian counterpart rightfully were regarded as among the year’s standouts.  (We’ll run into Mr. Abatemarco again.)

The Music Center had crowd-pleasers in the Druid Theater Company’s revival of Martin McDonagh’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane and the musical rendering of Albert and David Maysles’ landmark 1975 documentary Grey Gardens.

View from the Bridge-Ahmanson Theatre

Andrus Nichols, Frederick Weller (foreground), Alex Esola, Catherine Combs, Dave Register (background) in ‘A View from the Bridge’ at the Ahmanson. (Photo by Jan Versweyveld)

But the gold ring belonged to the Center Theatre Group’s production of Arthur Miller’s A View From the Bridge directed by Ivo Van Hove.  In his deconstructing of Miller’s most problematic play, Van Hove instilled a clarifying voice that combined the mythic with the operatic that beguiled audiences with the contradistinction of a cutting edge classical production.  As Eddie, the play’s doomed protagonist, Frederick Weller’s presence layered the staging with a breath taking luster.

Across the way, The Redcat played host to LA Opera Off Grand and the Beth Morrison Projects production of Ted Hearne and Librettist Mark Doten’s opera The Source, based on Army private Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning and his disclosure of the largest volume of classified material in U.S. history.

Doten’s libretto cascaded over the audience like a cataract constructed of Manning’s emails, recordings of actual military operations, joined to snatches of The Daily Show, the Dixie Chicks, and the 2010 NBA finals as cultural milestones from the period.

Isaiah Robinson-Source-

Vocalist Isaiah Robinson in “The Source.” (Photo by Craig T. Mathew / LA Opera)

Hearne’s composition was “beautiful and horrifying,” assaultive and majestic, and director Daniel Fish’s choices of eliminating the separation of  performers from audience, and forcing on us an awareness of history’s cross hairs by means of Jim Findlay’s stark videos reverberated with the unspoken challenge “What would you do?”

In their handling of the stream of consciousness libretto and the winnowing score vocalists Mellissa Hughes, Samia Mounts, Isaiah Robinson and Jonathan Woody performed flawlessly.

Over the years, the productions of William A. Reilly and Gary Lamb’s Crown City Theatre have shown an adventurous spirit and willingness to take chances that’s earned them the admiration of many.

Case in point their revival of Nosferatu – A Symphony in Terror Reilly’s silent stage reworking of Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau’s 1922 classic silent film that starred the actor Max Schreck as cinema’s most cadaverous vampire.

The performances of Michael J. Marchak and Alina Bolshakova as the doomed lovers and Michelle Holmes as the blood sucking Count Orlok contributed greatly in making this one of 2016’s most enjoyable shows.

As she has for twenty years plus, Deborah Lawlor has offered the folks of LA a monthly opportunity of having their socks knocked off with the “Forever Flamenco” series at The Fountain Theatre.

I have run out of superlatives for describing those evenings and  come 2017 I’ll be forced to coin a lexicon of my own devising with which to praise them.

Forever Flamenco logo“Yes, the performers were Slamaginificelent.”

(I’ll work on it.)

Once a month Lawlor provides a space for a “Juergas” that attracts some of Flamenco’s top singers and dancers: Gabriel Osuna, Mateo Amper, Gerardo Morales, Timo Nuñez, Jesus Montoya, Marina Valiente ,Oscar Valero, Bruno Serrano, Fanny Ara, Manuel Gutierrez, Mizuho Sato, and Antonio Triana to name a few.

Trust me, check out one.

Fringe Man-1000Speaking of months, during all of June the annual 2016 Hollywood Fringe Festival attracted talent to Santa Monica Boulevard like a back woods bon fire draws moths – and with far better results too.

Every year I’ve attended the Fringe I’ve been staggered by the talent, this year I actually began worrying that I could O.D.

Now solo shows are the meat and potatoes of any fringe, but at the Hollywood Fringe they dish out Lawry prime rib.

Among the tastiest servings were Carla Delaney’s sadly honest and honestly funny Voices, the tale of a voiceover artist who has forgotten which voice is her own.

At the 2015 Fringe Christopher Piehler charmed audiences with his autobiographic Reserve Champion which told how a young boy fell in love with horse back riding.  This year, A Horse with a View told how he rode that love to an even greater one.  Directed by Thomas James O’Leary.

In a near pitch black space, Catherine Waller’s one woman show Creeps had an assortment of twisted souls emerge from the shadows to confront the audience in a disturbing tour de force display of physical acting.

The two top solo performances were both grounded in actual events; A Regular Little Houdini was spun from the stories of the time Magic descended on Daniel Llewelyn Williamshome town in Wales, and watching him perform in it was like taking in deep breaths of pure oxygen.

Poster Art-Squeeze My CansSqueeze My Cans offered a riveting, heart wrenching and ultimately redeeming tale of Cathy Schenkelberg’s decade plus involvement with the Kafkaesque universe of Scientology.  Shirley Anderson’s masterful direction and Schenkelberg’s stunningly sincere narrative provides the most damning indictments yet of L. Ron Hubbard’s “religion.”

The power of certain productions was such that even writing this, their impact still echoes within me.

Neva by Chilean playwright Guillermo Calderón is one.  In a Russian theatre at the turn of the century, three actors, Claudia de Vasco, Daniel Jimenez and Anna Safar, gossip and flirt during a rehearsal of The Cherry Orchard, blithely dismissive of the revolution beginning on a larger stage outside theirs.

Diana Wyenn directed with a diamond like precision, aided by Joey Guthman’s beautifully realized scenic and light design.

Grasping its renewed relevance to today’s national debate, the aptly named Critical Action Theatre Company and director Anthony Mark Barrow mounted Israel Horowitz’s The Indian Wants the Bronx.  This one act premiered in 1968 and won Obies for the two young actors appearing in it, Al Pacino and John Cazale.

Indian Wants the Bronx-Fringe Festival 2016

(Fringe – 2016)

That this staging of two street toughs brutalizing a lost Indian tourist because his “foreignness” pisses them off could so easily be CNN’s lead story tonight is a sad condemnation of how our country is failing.

The constrained venue all but jammed the audience up into the action, as the gruff Murphy (Joel Abelson) and the bootlicking Joey (Nicklaus Von Nolde) assaulted the timid Gupta (Mukesh Patel).  It was not a pleasant feeling.   Performances and direction were unflinching and inspired, and this production should have been mandatory viewing for the nation.

Now I find a truly “lavish” staging is one which fuses intelligence with artistry in the service of the work, and a staging which flaunts the money pumped into it as just “over-produced.”

Vincent Deconstructed was lavish, and playwright/director Elissa Anne Polansky  with producer Mark Hein gave a supreme demonstration of what is meant by the term “the art of stagecraft.”

Projections by David Graham, David MacDowell Blue and Caitlin McCarthy, Hisato Masuyama and Steve Shaw’s sound score, Angela Eads’ costumes and Stacey Abrams’ light design created the lavishness of the stage environment on which  Alex Walters as the tormented artist was gripping.

Michael Shaw Fisher’s tour-de-force Skullduggery, which was one of great delights of the year for me.

A prequel to Hamlet with the first act curtain rising on the two loving brothers Claudius (John Bobek) and Hamlet senior (David Haverty) at the court of Elsinore thirty years before his son is “too much in the sun.”  Now that in and of itself would get a card carrying “bardophile” like myself gearing up the ol’ supercilious eye brow.  But to wrapped that concept up as a musical!  Oh, I had the sandpaper out of my pocket and was sharpening up the tongue to slash him up like Jack the Ripper on hyper drive.

But as my dear Aunt Grace use to say, “Well, shut my mouth wide open!”

Sacred Fools Theater-Skullduggery

‘Skullduggery’ Ensemble (Photo by Jessica Sherman Photography / Courtesy of Sacred Fools Theater Company)

It’s one thing to flaunt the chutzpa for to needed to compos the music, provided the lyrics and write the book for a musical prequel to Hamlet!

But to actually pull it off!

CJ Merriman, Jeff Sumner and Matt Valle as the “zanies” kicked off the opening with a rip-roaring rendering of “Hammy on DeAnne Millais’ wonderfully dark and striking set.  The cast had wonderful performers such as Brendan Hunt and Pat Towne.  Producer Brian Wallis and director Scott Leggett gave Skullduggery a superlative staging with Natasha Norman’s first rate choreography, Linda Muggeridge’s costume design and Andrew Schmedake’s lighting design.

But at the end of the day, what made this show work is that for a leathern-jerkin, crystal-button, knot-pated, agatering, puke-stocking, caddis-garter, smooth-tongue, Spanish pouch Michael Shaw Fisher is pretty talented.

Office Best Promo Poster2016 was a high water mark for musicals and music at The Hollywood Fringe Festival as well.

Tap Overload Dance Company presented the joyously fun Office Beat a Tap Dance Comedy an expose of office politics conceived by Mindy and Gage Coperland told without dialogue just very expressive feet.

Gary Stockdale and Spencer Green, the team behind the musical Bukowsical, turned to another unique subject matter and gave us the all singing, all dancing rush hour on the 405 in Bumpersticker: the Musical.  Making every song a bumper sticker is a pretty dopey concept, but the results were a brilliant show. Hannah Beavers’ video design was the icing on this very, very tasty cake.

In Sitting Bull’s Last Waltz the great Indian leader’s history from Custer’s defeat at Greasy Grass to his murder at Standing Rock Indian Reservation the Native Americans singing traditions are given the framing of a rock opera.  John Templin and Kathleen Dougherty’s commitment to their concept made what they achieved magical.

Janet Miller is a mainstay of the Fringe Festival, and her Good People Theatre Company  stages slick productions of Broadway audience pleasers that never fail to hit the mark.  This year she hit the mark with Toxic Avenger Musical toe-tapping fun at its very best.

The King of Soho arrived at the Hollywood Fringe late and with time for just two shows, so he was missed by most which was a pity because troubadour Jack Lukeman’s singing was like thunder from the mountain top joined with startling tenderness.%

Punch and Judy at The Fringe 2016

My pick for the best show of the Fringe was Punch and Judy.  The plot of the classic 16th century commedia dell’arte puppet show can be boiled down to: Punch merrily murders a lot of people.  Then he murders some more. The idea of transforming the puppet show into a full blown staging with live actors, lots of mindless mayhem and body parts a-go-go sprang from the mind of director/adaptor Christopher Johnson.

Jen Albert

‘Punch and Judy’ Producer / Fight Choreographer Jen Albert

Johnson, with producer/fight choreographer Jen Albert served up a deliciously demented delight with this show that could be used in theatre schools nationwide for a case study of comic delivery.

Synden Healy, Tiffany Cole, Kjai Block, Eric Rollins and Sondra Mayer were all top notch, but the epicenter of the evening’s eviscerating enjoyments was Cirque du Soleil veteran Jimmy Slonina as that psychopathic French “Bugs Bunny” Punch.

Ryan Beveridge, the king of goofy sounds and Andrew Leman’s splendid puppetry provided the spit shine to a wonderful show.

The Tragedy of JFK (as told by Wm. Shakespeare) by adapter and director Daniel Henning presents me with a problem.  It is cleverly conceived and stylishly staged with wonderful acting across the board with the stand out from a cast of stand-outs being Time Winters as LBJ/Brutus and Tony Abatemarco (again) as Hoover/Cassius.

But the play is bull shit.

Listen folks, it’s been over two decades, every white rabbit that the conspiracy minded have chased down a hole has only turned out to be a hare.

There is no “wonderland” of third shooters and CIA plotters.

It was Oswald.  Only Oswald.

Henning, who styles himself an authority on the JFK assassination, has written a solid play full of inaccuracies that does a disservice to its audiences which I was tempted to list as one of the year’s worst.  Shame on him.  (Guess that blows my chance for ever working at The Blank Theatre – eh.)

Now for the Walk of Shame.

And I’ll keep this short.

Robert Allen Ackerman has worked on Broadway, the New York Shakespeare Festival, worked with Meryl Streep, Colleen Dewhurst, Helen Mirren he has awards coming out of his ears.  And Blood which he wrote and directed with original music and songs by himself and Chris Cester had almost every critic sucking their toes over how good it was.

Except it wasn’t.

The tragic story of the Japanese blood scandal needs to be told.  It needs a show of compassion and scope to show to the world very worst and very best that humanity is capable of.

Blood was not that show.

Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop won the 2010 British Olivier Award for Best New Play and premiered in New York with Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Basset.

Maybe the evil elves switched the real play with one of their own when nobody was watching, because what I saw at the Matrix Theatre Company was self-indulgent, unfocused tripe.  But who knows, I could be mistaken….  But I’m not.

2016 offered up other disasters for the Los Angeles theater community, the frenzied mob pillorying of Colin Mitchell former editor of Bitter Lemons, the court’s decision against L.A.’s 99 Seat Plan, Donald Trump’s fraudulent election and  the fact that somewhere out there in the world Matthew Lopez’s bogus and dishonest The Whipping Man is actually getting produced.

But I want to end this piece on a positive note.

It you go to the Long Beach International City Theatre you can be guaranteed of two things: first that whatever show you’re seeing will have a first rate professional mounting.  And second that coming into the lobby of the theater you’ll be greeted by an ever-smiling, sweet-natured pixie by the name of Fannie Daly.

Over the years that I’ve been seeing shows at ICT she’s been at the door to take my ticket and welcome me into the theatre like she was inviting me into her own home.

She has served as a constant reminder to me that our community of the theatre doesn’t begin and end at the proscenium arch.

She always reminds me of the debt we owe to all the hard working folks focusing the lights, sewing the costumes, unplugging the toilets, rushing madly from thrift shop to thrift shop searching for a last minute replacement prop, sweeping the foyer, calling the subscribers to renew, reading the plays, recreating the arctic circle in Burbank, folding the programs, and greeting us at the door with a big smile and a warm welcome.

She reminds me that this is a community.

So for that community let me say to Fannie Daly and all those like her thank you.

Thank you so very much.

Wow!  Now that I see how much I wrote I gotta say maybe 2016 wasn’t such a “valley” after all.

But enough with that – time to get to work, make some magic, stir up a little revolution.

Its 2017 everybody – I suggest we buckle up!

♦   ♦   ♦

Trophy Graphic  Fortunately for us all there’s YouTube, where you can check out Lukeman and his tunes.  My personal favorite: Open your Borders.

 

 

Latest comments
  • saw a fair number of your pics. Can’t say always agree with you,r take but respect these choices.
    I do think Hairy Ape, one of the most impacting of the shows I went to last year. is it just me, or is La theater (SPECIFICALLY smaller houses) getting better and better?

    • Thank you so much, Ernest! We truly appreciate your support.

      • PS. Fannie Daly was my HS Dance teacher. 🙂

  • The video is something everyone should watch. I wasn’t born when President Kennedy was in office, but every time I see any video on him, I wish that he were still alive now or someone like him. Thanks for posting. it was unexpected.

  • Ernest Kearney

    glad you liked the video. I will be reviewing Jack Lukeman’s new album soon. and, yes, l.a. keeps on getting better and better.

    thank you for your kind words,

    ernest

  • Would like a reVieWer to come see august Wilson’s “King HedleY Ii” directed by Michele Shay it opens at the Matrix theater 1/21. More info here https://augustwilsonkinghedleyii.eventbrite.com

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