What’s the true function of the end-of-the-year “best of” roundup? How can it be said that out of all the possible performances in all possible worlds, any one is the “best” out of them all? For myself, I like to take the opportunity to highlight a collection of my personal favorite moments, inspirations, and themes. Not so much a conventional “best of” list, but rather a reflection of work that struck me, and stuck with me, for reasons unique to the companies that created it.
Best Emotional Journey to Inner Space
In Event of Moon Disaster, by Mugwumpin at Z Below
This devised show took the text of a speech that would have been delivered to the world by Richard had the Apollo 11 astronauts not returned to Earth safely. The resultant piece was a work of pure exploration, not just of the speculative moonscape, but of the humans who would venture to reach it. Confronted with their imminent demise and an enigmatic, anthropomorphized moon, Mugwumpin’s astronaut crew wound up traveling further inside than out, turning a trip to outer space into an excavation of the depths of their own mortality.
Best Covert CIA Operation Set to Music
Counting Sheep, by Mark and Marichka Marczyk (with Lemon Bucket Orkestra), presented by Cal Performances at the Oakland Metro Operahouse
My theatre-going Serbian friend is convinced that this touring musical about the Maidan Revolution in the Ukraine is a piece of CIA propaganda. I have no way of knowing whether or not he’s right, but IMHO having a “guerilla folk” ensemble tour the international Fringe Festival circuit seems of limited usefulness as a “covert” operation. For myself, the inventively-staged, immersive production—which gathered momentum and audience members into its ranks as the piece exploded from family celebration to fiery barricades—gave struggle a much more eloquent voice than if they had just written monologues about it. Plus, there was dancing in the “streets,” which will always be my preferred revolutionary act.
Best Pair of Audacious Odysseys
Father Comes Home from the Wars, by Suzan-Lori Parks at A.C.T.; black odyssey, by Marcus Gardley at Cal Shakes
It’s always exciting when the seasons of completely different theater spaces wind up producing work that complements those of others, whether by tapping into a specific cultural zeitgeist or just by welcome coincidence. This happened this season with A.C.T. and Cal Shakes producing two very different interpretations of The Odyssey that both dealt with the African-American experience in times of war. In Suzan-Lori Parks’ epic, it was the battlefields of the Civil War that framed the destiny of the protagonist, Hero. In Marcus Gardley’s (a revival of last year’s production), it was Afghanistan. But both embodied the word “epic” with their expansive narratives and utter commitment to their respective visions.
Best Crazy Rich Asians
Two Mile Hollow, by Leah Nanako Winkler, presented by Ferocious Lotus Theatre Company at Potrero Stage
In the land of the idle rich, dead patriarchs are revered, fortunes are capricious, nerves are permanently frayed. Two Mile Hollow isn’t different in that regard. What sets it apart was Winkler’s decision (and director Lily Tung Crystal’s hilarious abetment) to have all of the ostensibly “white” characters played by Asian-Americans, underscoring the absurdity of such characters while giving the actors a chance to play roles they aren’t typically cast for. Tung’s cast played their ostentatious roles to the hilt: from Michelle Talgarow’s imperiousness, to Greg Ayers’ vacuous enthusiasm, to Karen Offereins’ codependent passivity.
Best Literal Interpretation of Tearing Down Cultural Barriers
Mikiko Uesugi’s set design for Shotgun Players’ Kiss, by Guillermo Calderón at Ashby Stage
In Kiss comes a moment when a company of actors Skype with a Syrian playwright to get her thoughts on the piece they’ve just performed, and in a few sentences she firmly obliterates their vision. Everything they’ve created is revealed to be a huge misunderstanding of cultural mores and signals that the playwright had deliberately written into her text. But as they gamely restage the play with their new knowledge, yet another twist in the plot lays their metaphorical walls low—accompanied in the Shotgun Players’ production by the literal crashing down of Mikiko Uesugi’s set. Shotgun Players have used this nifty maneuver a few times, including in 2017’s Blasted, but this time it felt like part of an internal monologue, rather than the contrivance of external forces.
Best Putting Their Money Where Their Talent Is
TheatreFIRST’s Living Wage initiative
There are many ways to create theater, and many reasons to honor the imperative to do so, but TheatreFIRST’s decision to do away with actor stipends in favor of hourly pay rates (plus direct funding for child and elder care) is a significant one. Firstly because by paying for the hour it’s immediately clear to everyone how much work goes into the creation of a piece, and two because to value that time monetarily is a boon to artists struggling to survive in the crushingly expensive Bay Area. TheatreFIRST’s estimate is that an individual artist can expect to make about $2400 for a full production. Still peanuts to a scooter startup wage, I suppose, but a huge financial boost for artists accustomed to stipends in the low hundreds.
And Six More, In Brief:
Best Reason to Eat Cold Pizza With Strangers: San Francisco Neo-Futurists sold-out shows, at various venues.
Best Bureaucratic 'No Exit': The Interrogation Room at San Francisco International Arts Festival.
Best Butt: Butt Kapinski, Private Eye at PianoFight.
Best Heavenly Bodies: Angels in America at Berkeley Rep.
Best Political Smackdown Masquerading as a Plot Device: Schaubühne Theater’s An Enemy of the People audience-participation portion at Cal Performances.
Best Indy 5000: PianoFight celebrating their 5000th show (!) in less than four years.