Dan Berkowitz’s “10 Most” of 2015

Christmas and New Year’s Eve are behind us, but it’s still the “holidaze” and theatre in Los Angeles won’t get back up to speed for another week or two. In these winter doldrums, some critics and commentators fill in the dead air with “10 Best” lists. While they’re fun to read, I find them mostly of little use. First, no one can go to every production in town, so – at best – it’s the “10 Best” of what one particular person has seen. But more to the point, what does “best” mean anyway? Was Mary Martin really the “Best Actress” for The Sound of Music when she won the Tony over Ethel Merman for Gypsy and Carol Burnett for Once Upon a Mattress? Was Lee Marvin really the “Best Actor” of 1965 for Cat Ballou? Betcha at least a few people voted for Rod Steiger in The Pawnbroker or Laurence Olivier as Othello.

We know who wins the 50-yard dash, or the 100-meter freestyle – it’s whoever crosses the finish line, or touches the end of the pool, first. If you ask ten people who won last year’s Super Bowl, all of them would answer the Patriots. Well, actually, if you ask ten people, and one of them is me, you’d have to wait till I googled it because I don’t give a damn about the Super Bowl. But anyone who does give a damn would know the answer, and it would be correct.

But ask ten people to name the best theatre production of 2015… or the best movie… or the best TV show… or the best whatever “artistic” thing… and chances are you’d get a bunch of different responses. Which is exactly what has happened so far with the “10 Best” lists of 2015. The few I’ve read each contain some shows I thought were terrific – and some which I found anywhere from boring to terrible.

A gentleman who runs a well-known theatre website once took me to task for having opined that a critic is just another guy (or gal) with an opinion, and that “right” and “wrong” and “good” and “bad” are terms which probably shouldn’t be applied to art, since art is almost always subjective: one person’s work of genius is a boring piece of crap to someone else. And when it comes to awards – or “10 Best” lists – what you’re really talking about is what someone, or some group of people, like at that moment in time. Lots of people laughed at Sally Field, but I think she got it right when, upon picking up her second Oscar, she blurted, “You like me. Right now, you like me!”

With that as an intro, I’m not going to attempt a “10 Best” list, but rather a “10 Most” list. Please keep in mind this is very personal, is limited to shows I actually saw, and that I’m just another guy with an opinion – which, in my case, of course, is polished, erudite, witty, educated, and infallible.

Here are some shows I really, really liked.
 

"Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea" at Skylight Theatre

“Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea” at Skylight Theatre

 
MOST IMAGINATIVE
I’ll start out with a tie. Nathan Alan Davis’ Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea, directed by Gregory Wallace at the Skylight Theatre, wove storytelling, music, dance, and ritual into a fantastical tapestry: imaginatively conceived and written, spectacularly staged and designed, and acted with ferocious commitment, the result was thrilling.
 
"Urban Death" at Zombie Joe's

“Urban Death” at Zombie Joe’s

 
Urban Death, created and directed by Zombie Joe and Jana Wimer for Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre, was sophisticated and subversive, vividly reflecting our nightmares, hidden fears, and terror of the unknown – with no dialogue, just images, it was profoundly disturbing.
 
"Oedipus Machina" at the Odyssey Theatre

“Oedipus Machina” at the Odyssey Theatre

 
MOST AMBITIOUS
Oedipus Machina, inspired by Ellen McLaughlin’s Oedipus and adapted from the Sophocles text, was daringly conceived by director Ron Sossi at the Odyssey Theatre. It’s dangerous to do the Greeks – so much can go wrong! – but this lucid, visually stunning production aimed to create theatrical magic, and that’s a wondrous thing.
 
"The House of Yes" at the Zephyr Theatre

“The House of Yes” at the Zephyr Theatre

 
MOST OUTRAGEOUS
Wendy MacLeod’s The House of Yes, directed by Lee Sankowich at the Zephyr Theatre, made fun of mental illness, the Kennedy assassination, incest, emergency preparedness, adultery, premature ejaculation, nymphomania, donuts, and people who think Liebfraumilch is French. It was terribly rude, in incredibly poor taste, and quite, quite wonderful.
 
"I and You" at the Fountain Theatre

“I and You” at the Fountain Theatre

 
 
"Luka's Room" at Rogue Machine

“Luka’s Room” at Rogue Machine

 
MOST SURPRISING (IN A GOOD WAY)
Again, a tie. Both Lauren Gunderson’s I and You, directed by Robin Larsen at the Fountain Theatre, and Rob Mersola’s Luka’s Room, directed by Joshua Bitton at Rogue Machine, surprised, startled, and engaged me. Excellent, out-of-the-box writing, exemplary direction, and fabulous performances do wonders – every theatre should try it at least once!
 
"The Best of Enemies" at the Colony Theatre

“The Best of Enemies” at the Colony Theatre

 
 
Mitchell Tobin in "Billy Elliot the Musical" at La Mirada

Mitchell Tobin in “Billy Elliot the Musical” at La Mirada

 
 
"Fences" at International City Theatre

“Fences” at International City Theatre

 
MOST MOVING MOMENTS
A bunch. When Dontrell (Omete Anassi) emerged from the depths of the ocean after jumping in to find his ancestor in Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea; the last third or so of Mark St. Germain’s The Best of Enemies, directed by David Rose at the Colony Theatre, in which a racist white bigot (Larry Cedar) and a feisty black activist (Tiffany Rebecca Royale) overcome their differences and arrive at a place of mutual respect approaching love; the triumph of young Billy in Lee Hall and Elton John’s Billy Elliot the Musical, directed by Brian Kite at La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, made even more triumphant by the knowledge that the boy playing Billy, Mitchell Tobin, had taken over the role only three days before the opening; and August Wilson’s Fences, directed by Gregg T. Daniel at International City Theatre, a production distinguished by exceptional acting throughout, but whose final moments, in which mentally damaged Gabriel (Matt Orduna) mourns his dead brother, were heart-stopping.
 
"Bootycandy" at Celebration Theatre

“Bootycandy” at Celebration Theatre

 
MOST ENJOYABLE
While I enjoyed all the productions on this list, in the end I gotta say Robert O’Hara’s Bootycandy, directed by Michael Matthews at Celebration Theatre, takes the crown. This gorgeous, glorious, wild amalgam of what started as a series of unrelated plays not only comes together, but does so with guffaw-out-loud outrageousness. Stupendous. Runner-up? Probably Nick Jones’s Trevor, directed by Stella Powell-Jones for Circle X, which was loopy, shaggy, and eventually tragic; despite an unnecessary (and awful) final scene, it was pretty great.
 
"Trevor" at Circle X

“Trevor” at Circle X

 
There are several more categories in my “10 Most” list – Most Annoying Performance, Most Tedious and Nap-Inducing, Most Pretentious Claptrap, and Most Egregiously Unnecessary Vanity Production – but, since I’m in a good mood, I’ll hold off on them till another time.
 
"Breathing Room"

“Breathing Room”

 
Finally, there was one show of 2015 which I would have liked to review, but couldn’t – I directed it. If I’d covered it, I would have put it in the “Most Imaginative” category: Breathing Room, written and composed by Mary Lou Newmark, was a performance piece which combined music, comedy, movement, ritual, and quantum physics into a meditation on humanity’s interaction with nature and technology. The (other) critics were favorable, using words such as “magic,” “intoxicating,” “joyous,” and “totally unique” in their reviews. Except for one, who found it “artless.” But that’s okay. After all, he’s just another guy with an opinion.

Happy New Year!


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