YEAR IN THEATER 2011: Memorable food fights, biggest dicks, inscrutable triumvirates, George Clooney jumps ... It's the return of the Upstage/Downstage Awards
YEAR IN THEATER With a grateful nod to former colleague Brad Rosenstein, we re-inaugurate a system of accolades and nah-ccolades celebrating some memorable highs and lows of the rapidly closing year in theater and performance.
Most Memorable Food Fight
A Three Little Dumplings Adventure
Within seconds of the appearance of the three titular protagonists of Megan Cohen's A Three Little Dumplings Adventure — a hot pink and powder blue hurricane wreaking havoc on the subdued prison of a suburban living room — it was impossible not to get sucked into their chaotic orbit. Alternating between being patently obnoxious, emotionally unanchored, and frankly homicidal, the "three little dumplings" played by Sarah Moser, Molly Holcomb, and Megan Trout teased, baited, jabbed, and wrestled each other across the stage, culminating in Moser pinning Trout to the floor threatening to eat her ("dumpling" being no tidy euphemism here, but a physiological condition). Presented at the Bay One Acts Festival, it was definitely the year's best meta-cannibalistic food frenzy, and it whetted our appetite for more. (Nicole Gluckstern)
Best Drug Story
Greg Proops at "Previously Secret Information"
Admittedly the best highs are often hard to remember. Kudos to the seemingly rock-hard memory of otherwise mellow-ab'd comedian Greg Proops, who recalled prodigious intake and takeout as a Chicken Delite delivery boy in 1970s San Carlos for an edition of Joe Klocek's storytelling series, "Previously Secret Information." (Robert Avila)
Best Political-Historical Thesis Disguised as a Wildly Funny and Louche "Songplay"
Their own prior hit, 2008's Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage, was going to be a hard act to follow. But Banana Bag & Bodice and producers Shotgun Players made playwright Jason Craig and composer Dave Malloy's take on Rasputin look like child's play — very precocious child's play — where performances, music, costumes, mise-en-scène, themes, and dialogue all contributed to another hirsute masterpiece. (Avila)
Most Inscrutable Triumvirate
Mimu Tsujimura, Lily Tung Crystal, and Katie Chan in Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven
Speaking of frankly homicidal, the otherwise nameless characters "Korean 1, 2, and 3" in the joint Crowded Fire/Asian American Theater Company production of Young Jean Lee's Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven were as outrageously bloodthirsty a collection of countertypical characters as ever graced the Thick House stage. By turns violent, ecstatic, girlish, and demented, the eclectic trio played by Mimu Tsujimura, Lily Tung Crystal, and Katie Chan skewered every tradition-bound Asian stereotype in the book. Clad in the dazzle camouflage of their flowing silk dresses, rendering their monologues in their respective "mother" tongues, not spoken by this or many other audience members, the fiercely energetic characters expertly revealed themselves by not revealing a thing. (Gluckstern)
Best Lighting Design
Allen Willner for inkBoat's The Line Between
Willner's worked wonders before, not least with longtime collaborators inkBoat (Heaven's Radio), but he outdoes himself in this wild and excellent production, making the lighting design a full member of the ensemble with a world of shifting moods and ideas. (Avila)
Best Tentative Revival of a Theatrical Artform
Where have all the puppets gone? It seemed like for a few years there they all went into hiding, perhaps barricading themselves in little puppet bunkers, awaiting the end times. But a modest slew of puppet-driven performances resurfaced over the course of 2011, reigniting our hopes for a full-blown revival in the future. A shortlist of memorable puppets encountered this year include Lone Wolf Tribe's dark circus of clowns and war veterans in Hobo Grunt Cycle; a beleaguered Orson Welles puppet manipulated by Nathanial Justiniano's sociopathic Naked Empire Bouffon Company alter ego Cousin Cruelty; Thomas John's "hard-boiled" egg puppets who populated his Humpty Dumpty noir thriller The Lady on the Wall; the over-the-top awesomeness of a trio of Audrey Jrs. in Boxcar Theatre's Little Shop of Horrors, and the silently suffering soldier of Aurora Theatre's A Soldier's Tale. Here's hoping this miscellany foreshadows the triumphal return of the missing puppets, to as opposed to their last hurrah. (Gluckstern)
The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs
Just before public figures across the spectrum wailed their approval of a fallen business idol, Seattle-based monologist Mike Daisey, at Berkeley Rep, not-so-quietly reminded people of what a corporation is. Then Occupy Wall Street happened. (Avila)
Most Polarizing Descent Into the Reptilian Complex
Whether you loved it or loathed it, Pig Iron's touring production of Chekhov Lizardbrain was certainly one of the year's most striking. Performing as part of foolsFURY's Fury Factory, the Philadelphia-based Pig Iron spearheaded an expedition into the inner workings of one man's brain beset by shifting vagaries of memory and truth. Combining a series of pompously-referenced "rules" of drama, stock Chekhovian alter-egos, and the dual personalities — internal and external — of an undersocialized protagonist (James Sugg) struggling to shape his memories into a recognizable narrative, Chekhov Lizardbrain elicited the most polarized reaction from its sold-out houses I saw all year. From a standing ovation to a fair number of disgruntled walk-outs, this dark-edged exploration inspired a panorama of strong responses in its audience, a solid sign of success in my book. (Gluckstern)
Best Labor of Love
The Companion Piece
Inspired by a concept by Beth Wilmurt, who was inspired by a book about the biological roots of human emotions (A General Theory of Love), Mark Jackson directed Wilmurt and fellow "vaudevillians" Christopher Kuckenbaker and Jake Rodriguez at Z Space in one of the most inspired pieces of devised theater all year (with a close second going to Jackson's own SF State production of the blissful Wallflower). (Avila)
Best Conversation Starter
The closure of a "remixed" Little Shop of Horrors
Another polarizing moment in Bay Area theater occurred this summer when Boxcar Theatre's ambitious remix of the cultish Alan Menken and Howard Ashman musical Little Shop of Horrors was shut down by Music Theatre International due to admitted violations of its licensing agreement. The debate inspired by both the violations and the show's subsequent closure was as passionate and considered as the production that inspired it, from both perspectives of the situation. Without taking sides, I found the conversation about artistic freedom vs. artists' rights to their own works to be as stimulating and thought-provoking as any night in the theater could strive to be. It seems unlikely that Boxcar Theatre knowingly set out to become the vanguard for open-source theater-making, but here's hoping it's a banner they are willing to carry a little longer. (Gluckstern)
Best Part of Getting Old
Geezer at the Marsh
I'm glad I lived long enough to see Geoff Hoyle live long enough to produce this solo piece extraordinaire. (Avila)
Best Couch-Surfing Opportunity
"Home Theater Festival"
Sometimes it's hard to leave the comfort of one's home to gamble on the capricious vicissitudes of a theater outing. Gambling in the comfort of someone else's home was, on the other hand, really easy. (Avila)
Best Ostentatious Design Overload
The Lily's Revenge
Watching the four-and-a-half-hour epic performance mash-up that was Taylor Mac's The Lily's Revenge at the Magic Theatre was in parts harrowing, exhausting, and transcendentally fabulous, but what stuck with me long after the vague twists of plot and character had mostly faded from my memory were indelible images of the seriously overwhelming design. From dazzling, sequined flower costumes by Lindsay W. Davis, to four complete sets built to accommodate five acts designed by Andrew Boyce, to the extravagant lighting by Sarah Sidman, The Lily's Revenge could have been subtitled The Tech Crew's Revenge, which would have been a fitting description of the glorious fantasia created by the uniformly top-notch production team. (Gluckstern)
Best Jump on George Clooney
North is better known to multiplex crowds as The Ides of March. But Bay Area theatergoers were first to get a former Howard Dean speechwriter's fictionalized story of real-deal electoral politics in a so called democracy — and in a nimble low-budge production from OpenTab Productions at Noh Space that made it all the sweeter for not being Hollywooden. (Avila)
Best Planned Revitalization of a Theater District Linchpin
PianoFight at Original Joe's
When the venerable, family-run Original Joe's at 144 Taylor burned down in 2007 it was a catastrophic blow to the neighborhood — especially to all the theaters in the area who had adopted it over the years as a go-to post-show hang-out. It even served as a San Francisco Fringe Festival off-site venue for several years, hosting the likes of RIPE Theatre and Dan Carbone. So it was wonderful news on many levels when the turbo-charged PianoFight theater company signed a ten-year lease with the Duggan family to turn the old Original Joe's into the new home of PianoFight. In addition to rebuilding the restaurant and bar, PianoFight plans to house two theaters, offices, and rehearsal spaces under the same roof — a huge boost to the neighborhood and greater theatrical community both. (Gluckstern)
Worst-Attended Theatrical Gem
Hobo Grunt Cycle at the Exit Theater
I'm not sure why there were so few people in the audience for this stunning cri de coeur against warfare by Kevin Augustine's rightly acclaimed New York–based puppet theater ensemble, Lone Wolf Tribe. As hard as it can be to look at the real face of war, this piece brilliantly insisted on the need to do just that: manipulated with consummate grace by one or more black-clad puppeteers, Augustine's life-sized puppets remained strikingly sentient, heartbreakingly damaged beings you absolutely could not take your eyes off. (Avila)
Classiest Beginning to a Final Bow
In the Maze of Our Own Lives
Playwright-director Corey Fischer's sleekly staged, prescient take on the radically influential Group Theatre ensemble of the thoroughly agitated 1930s, In the Maze of Our Own Lives, which lead off the Jewish Theatre's 34th and last season. (Avila)
Best Reason to Cross the Bridge: SQUART at Headlands Center for the Arts This 24-hour, all-stops-pulled-out version of choreographer Laura Arrington's shrewd experimental series in collaborative performance-making capped a residency at the Headlands with a well-attended set of four sneaky, astonishing pieces by a multi-talented ensemble of harried sleep-deprived creator-conspirators. Why isn't art always made this way? (Avila)
Worst Gas-to-Show Ratio Lolita Roadtrip at San Jose Stage A surprisingly unmoving outing from otherwise quick playwright Trevor Allen, who indeed quickly bounced back with a remounting of his popular solo, Working for the Mouse. (Avila)
Strangest Encounter Between "Performer" and "Audience" Robert Steijn Steijn questioned everything, including what the hell he was doing onstage in front of the people assembled to see the famed Dutch performer at Joe Goode's new annex in the Mission. They were all good questions, and the micro-choreography of physical and psychic states to which they pointed charged the room with a delicate intensity that encouraged many thoughtful beers afterward. (Avila)
Short takes: Biggest Dick: Kevin Spacey as Richard III. With balls and chops to match.
Best Beefcake Ham and Cheese on Wry for under $100: Hugh Jackman at the Curran.
Best use of salvia: Philip Huang at "Too Much!"
Best medicine for complacency: Cancer Cells, selections from late works and words by Harold Pinter by Performers Under Stress.
Biggest site-specific punch (with gloves on or off): Peter Griggs' one-man show, Killer Queen: The Story of Paco the Pink Pounder, at Michael the Boxer Gym and Barbershop.
Most intellectually stimulating drag lecture: David Greenspan reading Gertrude Stein's Plays at the Contemporary Jewish Museum. (Avila)