The Best Bay Area Theater of 2019

Dwayne Clay, Eddie Ewell, Lenard Jackson, and Tre'Vonne Bell in 'Kill Move Paradise,' by James Ijames, at Shotgun Players' Ashby Stage. (Robbie Sweeny)

As our calendars poise to flip from the teens to the '20s, it’s time to indulge in a final burst of nostalgia for the year in theater.

Filled with resonance and unexpected gems, the best Bay Area productions of the year looked at the world and found it filled with catastrophe, daring and hope—a reminder that artists are our best documentarians and our most prescient prophets. Here are some of the biggest takeaways from this year—and a toast of encouragement for the next.

Stacy Ross skis down the San Francisco slopes with Charlie Gray (left) and Miyaka P. Cochrane (right) in 'Free For All: A New “Miss Julie” for a New World.'
Stacy Ross skis down the San Francisco slopes with Charlie Gray (left) and Miyaka P. Cochrane (right) in 'Free For All: A New “Miss Julie” for a New World.' (Ben Krantz)

Climate Change on Stage

Some of the most eclectic, energetic and experimental shows of the year delved into the ever-present issue of climate change and its devastating effects. The California wildfires raged in the background of Shotgun Players' Kill the Debbie Downers! Kill Them! Kill Them! Kill Them Off!; Cutting Ball Theater's Free for All prophesized an underwater future; and nightmare creatures of combustion, avarice and denial stalked the stage of Antic in a Drain’s Tempting Fate. Global warming was one hot topic that demanded creative attention.

The Cast of The Jungle at Curran Theatre, Spring 2019. (Little Fang)

Immigration and Borders

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As with climate change, the theme of borders was one that preoccupied playwrights. Immigrants, operatives and governments took centerstage in Dan Hoyle’s bare-bones documentary theater piece Border People at the Marsh and the sprawling, immersive world of The Jungle at the Curran. Meanwhile, tightening U.S. borders impacted the theater world another way: visas were denied or delayed for international artists working with entities such as the San Francisco International Arts Festival, EXIT Theatre and the Imaginists. (Full disclosure: I work with EXIT Theatre.)

Steven Anthony Jones and Nancy Moricette in Mfoniso Udofia's In Old Age at Magic Theatre. (Jennifer Reiley)

Shows in Conversation

Some theatrical "conversations" this year were planned—such as the twin productions of Mfoniso Udofia’s Her Portmanteau and In Old Age at A.C.T. and the Magic Theatre. Meanwhile, others seemed to emerge from pure happy coincidence. These included Poltergeist Theatre Project’s first full-length debut, The Julie Cycle, and Cutting Ball Theater’s Free for All, which both remixed August Strindberg’s Miss Julie. African-American Shakespeare Company’s Macbeth and Ubuntu Theater Project’s Down Here Below both featured homeless encampments. The common themes of these shows magnified their individual impacts.

Charlie (James Carpenter) and Nancy (Ellen McLaughlin) panic at the appearance of Sarah (Sarah Nina Hayon) and Leslie (Seann Gallagher) (Kevin Berne)

Leadership Changes

This was a year of goodbye and hello as long-standing artistic directors of cherished institutions moved on or announced their pending departures, and new appointees took their posts. A.C.T.’s Pam MacKinnon cemented her first full season by directing both Edward Albee’s Seascape and Kate Attwell’s Testmatch. Johanna Pfaelzer, Jeremy Geffen and Josh Costello stepped into their new appointments at Berkeley Repertory Theater, Cal Performances and Aurora Theatre Company, respectively.

Tim Bond was announced as TheatreWorks second-ever artistic director, set to take over from Robert Kelley in July 2020. And the iconic Beach Blanket Babylon called it quits after 45 years. Meanwhile, Oakland company Ragged Wing announced that it would give up its black-box space The Flight Deck in March 2020 due to high operational costs, a call to action to a wider community of independent artists who may be able to take on its management in the future.

An epic battle against darkness in 'Harry Potter and the Cursed Child' at the Curran Theatre.
An epic battle against darkness in 'Harry Potter and the Cursed Child' at the Curran Theatre. (Matthew Murphy)

Technical Wizardry

As a longtime tech booth lurker, I thrill at the possibilities of good design, and this year offered plenty of marvels. Berkeley Repertory Theater flexed its production muscles with the watery basin that contained Mary Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses and Bill T. Jones’ stunning Paradise Square choreography. The Jungle and Harry Potter and the Cursed Child astoundingly transformed of the Curran.

Innovative design flourished in smaller houses as well, including Colm McNally’s stunningly integrated set and lighting for Ripped at Z Space, Ronlin Foreman’s diabolical masks for Antic in a Drain’s Tempting Fate and Celeste Martore’s strikingly austere set for Kill Move Paradise at Shotgun Players.

J Jha portrays an army of warriors in Ubuntu Theater Project's 'The Mahābhārata.'
J Jha portrays an army of warriors in Ubuntu Theater Project's 'The Mahābhārata.' (Carson French)

And now for superlatives.

MVPs: J Jha, Krystle Piamonte, Neiry Rojo and Stacy Ross

While I saw many good performances this year, these four actors in particular inhabited their roles in multiple shows with verve, charisma, tenacity and compassion. Each one was mesmerizing and magnificent to watch all year long.

Best Party at the End of the World: Free for All by Megan Cohen at Cutting Ball Theater

A brand new play by local wordsmith Megan Cohen is always cause for celebration, and her futuristic Free For All at Cutting Ball Theater was a particular treat. Cohen offered a champagne toast to a climate-ravaged San Francisco, poised either at the precipice of unmitigated disaster or of a brave new day.

Most Transformative Theatrical Experience: The Jungle by Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson at the Curran

As noted above, this production took over the meticulously restored Curran and turned it into a startlingly realistic refugee camp, where audiences sat at picnic tables and sampled the wares of Salar’s restaurant as the actors—some of whom were once refugees at the Calais camp where the play is set—assembled for the “meeting.” So often, immersive pieces feel like they’re trying too hard to engage an audience mostly intent on spectating comfortably, but The Jungle showed that actually they’re not trying hard enough. The show set the bar incredibly high, creating an unforgettable, often unforgiving, experience.

Show Most Likely to Provoke Intense Debate: Ripped by Rachel Bublitz at Z Space

The genius of Ripped is that of all the plays I saw this year, this one kept me questioning my own reactions to it, even six months later. This play—which had a notable reading at Z Space’s 2018 inaugural Problematic Play Festival—invited debate with its daring excavation of the "gray" areas of intent, consent and reliable witness, directed in a taut, compelling production by Lisa Steindler.

Most Devastating Afterlife: Kill Move Paradise by James Ijames at Shotgun Players

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A haunting, haunted exploration of murdered black men and women, Kill Move Paradise did more than talk about black pain: its characters embodied it with every vibration. Trapped in a porcelain-slick room with curved walls and an oppressive audience watching their every move, the four characters relived their deaths in a focused attempt to break the cycle of violence. Riveting, heart-breaking and damning.