Okay, so I saw a bunch of crap this past year. But I also saw some amazing stuff on local stages -- things that made me hopeful that local theater is not destined to repeat the same four musicals (another production of Cabaret, anyone?) and three Neil Simon comedies (my kingdom for an ordinance against Plaza Suite!), ad nauseam. Here, as proof, is a rundown of some theatrical high points (and a couple of low points) of this past calendar year.
"Gay plays" got less gay. Diana Son's Stop Kiss -- about a couple of gals who kiss on a deserted Manhattan street, and how the consequences of that kiss change their lives forever -- is usually promoted as a "gay play" on those rare occasions when it's produced at all. We were fortunate that Ron May's Stray Cat Theatre took on Son's play, and made it memorable with this bitty company's trademark style. May and company once again rose to the challenge of a tricky script, and neither punched up the story's homo angles in order to draw gay crowds nor played down the fact that this is a play about a couple of women who fall in love with each other.
Actors Beth Froehlich and Alette Valencia brought a subtle sexual tension to the two women, neither of whom has had a same-sex relationship before, and by the time they got us to the kiss of the play's title, they'd helped make it obvious that Son's story isn't a "gay play" at all, but rather a restrained romance full of amusing commentary about the ways that people of all stripes wind up in their lives. Marcos D. Voss' sharp direction made Son's story all the more compelling, because it allowed Stop Kiss' simultaneous timelines to intersect effortlessly. Sublime -- and ultimately not very gay.
Onstage goofs were elevated. Stop Kiss didn't just advance the art of good queer theater; it upped the ante on onstage screw-ups, too. I've waited decades to see some actor -- any actor! -- handle a stage blunder with anything other than panic and dismay. On opening night, this Stray Cat production still needed some smoothing out, and at one point the leads found themselves locked out of the faux apartment where their next scene was to take place. After several nervous minutes of doorknob jiggling, one of the actors hollered through the plywood wall, "Hang on! I'll have the super climb through the window and let us in!" At which point a jumper-clad stagehand appeared from the wings to let the actors onto the set. Maybe this wasn't a moment of genius-caliber "fire and music," but it beat the hell out of having to watch actors entering stage left when they were meant to arrive through the doorway of a high-rise apartment.
I finally got over my Boomer Nostalgia. The Wonder Bread Years, Pat Hazell's wistful gander at the sweet suburban memories of Boomer-era kids, is just the kind of up-tempo musing on the joys of childhood that I love. But from the moment actor John Mueller skipped onto the Herberger's Stage West last summer to begin what turned out to be a sleepy, lackluster reading of his (actually Hazell's) and our childhood memories, I wanted to go home. After years of humming the jingle for Jiffy Pop popcorn and clocking endless hours of Lost in Space reruns, I had finally had enough of our collective past, and of cute shows about the childhood of every American "kid" between the ages of 35 and 45.
Actors Theatre was saved. Fans and friends dug deep and, at the eleventh hour, scraped together enough funds to keep our most enterprising Equity house open this year. Of the handful of professional theater companies, Actors Theatre takes the widest risks -- and more often than not delivers delightful and edifying entertainment, like this past year's Nickel and Dimed, or provocative productions like the recent Blue/Orange, a seriocomic peek into the mental-health industry. Here's to hoping that this important and engaging company socked some away for next year.
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Drag queens made a worse name for themselves. I knew it was going to be a long night when Koko! The Island Adventures of Miss Koko Neufchatel began with the show's lone actor dragging a couple of audience members onto the stage so he could sing "Happy Birthday" to them. Koko! is actually quite well-written. But this trio of long monologues by and about an outrageously garbed drag queen named Koko (who, in its Artists Theatre Project production, was played by three different actors on different nights) was badly bungled on the night I saw it.
The Koko I and the rest of the unfortunately rowdy audience got was Doug Loynd, who obviously spent more time applying his blue glitter lip gloss than he did studying his script. Loynd devoted his performance to alternately forgetting his lines and screwing up those he did recall. The pair of mechanized talking Styrofoam totem poles that flanked the stage (designed and executed by playwright David Maxey) displayed greater acting skills than did our Mr. Loynd, who finally left the stage. Which I hope -- in or out of drag -- he makes a permanent situation.
A cartoon convinced me. Disney's Beauty and the Beast is exactly the kind of entertainment I've publicly maligned for years: a corporate-inspired translation of a cutie-pie musical cartoon adapted from classic literature and peopled by actors dressed in character costumes that all but swallow their performances, which are anyway built on attempts to ape the motion picture line drawings that inspired them. But Phoenix Theatre and Valley Youth Theatre's co-production of Beauty and the Beast sold me on dorky cartoons as stage musicals.
The direction was topnotch; the production numbers big and showy; and many of the performances were first-rate. Robert Kolby Harper's Busby Berkeley homages and a kick line of dancing kitchenware (especially Joe Kremer's flamboyantly funny turn as a giant whisk) had me -- dare I admit this? -- laughing right in the middle of dance numbers. Which doesn't mean I don't think that the next time someone attempts The Lion King it'll wind up as high art. But in the meantime, my memory of this "tale as old as time" will keep me warm 'til next year.