The dawn of a new year, as I reflect on the stage performances of 2006 ... if the old holiday adage is true, that good things come in small packages, it’s particularly true of theater in the East Bay. Last year held a few welcome surprises, and they were mostly on the boards trod by small companies.
Incredibly, there are more than 400 theater companies and projects in the Bay Area, maybe five or six times the number 20 years ago or so. With such a wealth of ever-changing productions, it means a greater range of styles and material to choose from than ever—and that no single spectator or reviewer can even begin to keep track of, much less see, all of it.
That also means just what the past year’s experience has borne out: any time a spectator feels jaded that the possibilities of the local stage have been plumbed, she or he will be proven wrong—very likely by some unassuming show dropped in on in some unexpected venue. Nobody, in any sense, has seen it all.
A couple of cases in point: approaching Alameda’s Altarena Playhouse production of Death of a Salesman, I wondered how much even a venerable community theater could mine from a much-produced and discussed postwar classic, a difficult play even for the greatest of professionals. But Sue Trigg’s direction and a good ensemble brought out lyrical and wryly humorous elements, seldom seen in stagings of Miller plays, in an integral performance, a triumph by any standards.
And fledgling Ten Red Hen put on a poor mouth production of a big commercial (and usually hi-tech) musical as The 99 Cent Miss Saigon at the Willard School Metal Shop. By playing it straight, as they flaunted “cheap” production values, Ten Red Hen somehow registered a critique of the play’s view of the war in Vietnam, and an unlikely venue became a lively cabaret. Their Clown Blue debuts in March.
Some smaller companies consolidated their gains in experience, setting new horizons for the future. TheatreFIRST, with their excellent production values and international, socially thematic focus, made themselves the only resident troupe in downtown Oakland in their Old Oakland Theatre on 9th off Broadway. Shotgun Players, who found a home at Ashby Stage, produced an important theater lab series on offnights and, with their past three shows (Ragnarok, Love Is a Dream House in Lorin and The Forest War), including their first commissions, seem to be developing a kind of broadly populist house style of storytelling. And Stan Spenger, founder of Subterranean Shakespeare, put on a lively Richard III at the Berkeley Art Center. He also showed a good hand with Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler for Actors Ensemble, who elected him president of the Berkeley community troupe.
Community theater has been thriving, not only with Actors Ensemble and Altarena, but with the splendid, mostly amateur Masquers of Pt. Richmond and the more semi-pro Contra Costa Civic, both celebrating many decades of playing.
An unusual community project realized onstage, the medieval Islamic fable about human stewardship of the world, Island of Animals, brought director, adaptor and scholar Hafiz Karmali from Paris for a joint production with a truly diverse cast, by Fremont’s Afghan Alliance and Golden Thread, the vigorous and important producer of the ReOrient play festival and other cultural events concerning Middle Eastern identity. Occasionally, Golden Thread has joined forces with Oakland’s Darvag, playing in both English and Farsi, for audiences of all ages and cultures.
Central Works continued in its years of excellence at the Berkeley City Club, a revival of cofounder Gary Graves’ Andromache showing some of the dense theatricality of its Racinean inspiration. Fledgling Ragged Wing staged its second show with The Snow Queen, and will be opening its own physical-style version of The Tempest later this month.
Some smaller companies, like Oakland’s Eastenders, with their one-act festivals on themes like “100 Years of Political Theater” and “Sex Acts,” and brand-new Arclight, have produced shows in San Francisco—and other memorable performances have been passing through, like Russian actor-director Oleg Liptsin’s stylized show of Beckett’s Happy Days that Antares Ensemble produced, or SF’s Exit Theater in-residence troupe Mugwumpin’s riffing off “Frankie & Johnnie” at Shotgun’s Lab. Woman’s Will staged all-female Shakespeare in the parks and Brecht-Weill’s Happy End at Luka’s Taproom.
Small opera companies put on several of the most energetically theatrical shows, with Berkeley Opera’s brilliantly staged premiere of Clark Suprynowicz’s Chrysalis—with a wry libretto about a cosmetics exec and her in-the-mirror doppelganger by Berkeley playwright John O’Keefe—and Oakland Opera Theater’s two innovative stagings (Anthony Davis’ extraordinary “X”--the life of Malcolm X, to be reprised this spring—and Philip Glass’ Les Enfants Terribles, Cocteau’s tale of incest (reset in French Indochina) coming first to mind.
The Marsh in the Gaia Buiding downtown proved itself much more than a venue for solo performance, as its stage saw a profusion of improvisation, works-in-progress, family shows and its founder’s own compound of poetry, choral music, dance and narrative—a kind of personal re-creation myth, Aphrodisia.
Excellence played in bigger, more established venues, too. Aurora—which started small, in the City Club—staged a fine Master Builder, with founder Barbara Oliver directing James Carpenter and Lauren Grace in an exciting revival of Ibsen’s ironic anatomy of middle class illusions.
At Berkeley Rep, Glass Menagerie, tinged with the bittersweet Tennessee Williams’ sometimes Chaplinesque comedy, was topped by Rita Moreno’s triumphant break from typecasting as an exotic in her portrayal of Southern Belle-manque Amanda with true Pirandellian humor. CalPerformances featured international touring shows, notably Ratan Thiyyam’s stage poem of the Indian Army occupation of his native Manipur, while the UC performing arts departments produced an ambitious, ongoing new program of diverse contemporary works.
And to touch again on Arthur Miller, Berkeley’s Joy Carlin scored a hit, directing a splendid cast in a strangely funny late Miller morality play of sorts, The Ride Down Mt. Morgan, at the SF Playhouse, near Union Square.
With this wealth of performance and more, whether you catch a musical outdoors at Woodminster or an interclub competition of conjurors and mentalists at the Oakland Magic Circle, the truth strikes home, from the threat a great director once made of returning to the audience—just to be a spectator again: “that’s the greatest profession in the world!”
Contributed photo : One of the best of 2006: Berkeley Opera staged the premiere of Clark Suprynowicz’s Chrysalis, a wry libretto about a cosmetics exec and her in-the-mirror doppelganger by Berkeley playwright John O’Keefe.