Best Theater of 2014: A Year Full to Bursting with Powerful Performances

Lewis Rawlinson, Javi Harnly, Alex Rodriguez, Chelsea Holifield and David Naughton as sexy dinosaurs in Ray of Light Theatre's Triassic Parq; photo: Erik Scanlon.

Lewis Rawlinson, Javi Harnly, Alex Rodriguez, Chelsea Holifield and David Naughton as sexy dinosaurs in Ray of Light Theatre's Triassic Parq; photo: Erik Scanlon.

Looking back on a year of theatergoing in the Bay Area, it’s staggering how much impressive, vital and memorable work has been produced. Every year it seems like the local theater community manages to cram five years-worth of challenging new plays, solo shows and reimagined classics into just 12 months.

This feast of vibrant work makes it difficult to choose a list of the best shows of the year. With that in mind, I’ve tried to make the following roundup more than just an exercise in reminiscence about isolated, exceptional productions that have come and gone. Instead, I hope you’ll read it as a recognition of the people in your neighborhoods who are doing great work — and whom you should get to know. In that spirit, here are my picks for this year’s top ten productions, in chronological order.

Brian Copeland explores the pitfalls of privilege in The Scion; photo: Carla Befera.
Brian Copeland explores the pitfalls of privilege in The Scion; photo: Carla Befera.

The Scion

The Marsh

Comedian and talk show host turned solo theater artist Brian Copeland just keeps creating powerful monologues that take on terribly difficult subjects with honesty and humor. His 2004 piece Not a Genuine Black Man, about growing up as one of the first black families in San Leandro when it was known as one of America’s most racist suburbs, became the longest-running solo show in San Francisco history. His 2012 follow-up, The Waiting Period, was an intensely personal examination of struggling with suicidal depression. The Scion turns Copeland’s wry and discerning eye to the all-too-timely subject of privilege. He deftly contrasts his own experience of being routinely pulled over and questioned just for being a young African-American male with the very different rearing of another San Leandran—“sausage king” Stuart Alexander—who learned early on that his family’s wealth could make any problems with the law go away.   At least, it did until he killed three meat inspectors at the family sausage factory.

Tiffany Rachelle Stewart, Flor De Liz Perez and Joniece Abbott-Pratt in The House that will not Stand; photo: kevinberne.com.
Tiffany Rachelle Stewart, Flor De Liz Perez and Joniece Abbott-Pratt in The House that will not Stand; photo: kevinberne.com.

The House That Will Not Stand

Berkeley Repertory Theatre

Though based in New York, West Oakland native Marcus Gardley keeps coming back to the Bay Area with impressive new plays, such as his densely poetic mythic mashup ….And Jesus Moonwalks the Mississippi, which managed to combine Jesus, Bre’r Rabbit and Yoruba Orishas into a story set during the Civil War. Even so, his latest, The House That Will Not Stand, feels like a significant leap forward for the 36-year-old playwright. Gardley seamlessly weaves together the basic plot of Federico Garcia Lorca’s play The House of Bernarda Alba with the plight of free people of color (particularly the long-term mistresses of wealthy white men) in 1836 New Orleans, a time when the old customs of the former French colony were being subsumed by the more draconian laws of the American South. The play was powerfully brought to life in February at Berkeley Rep by director Patricia McGregor, who frequently works at California Shakespeare Theater (Spunk, The Winter’s Tale, A Raisin in the Sun).

Abigail and Shaun Bengson rock the house in Hundred Days at Z Space; photo: Mark Leialoha.
Abigail and Shaun Bengson rock the house in Hundred Days at Z Space; photo: Mark Leialoha.

Hundred Days

Z Space

Every once in a while there comes a musical so full of passion and joy that you can’t help but get caught up in it. That was certainly the case with Hundred Days, the bittersweet love story that Z Space premiered in March, which went on to win a TBA Award for outstanding world premiere musical. The story in Kate E. Ryan’s libretto is sad but beautiful: no sooner has a young couple met and fallen in love than they find out one of them has a terminal illness. The two shut themselves off from the world and live their remaining 100 days together as if they were 60 years of marriage. What really drives it all home are the propulsive, exuberant indie-rock songs of Abigail and Shaun Bengson, of the band the Bengsons. The couple also starred in the musical alongside young local actors such as Reggie White and Amy Lizardo, who just finished up a run of Party People at Berkeley Rep, and El Beh, who’s currently in Shotgun Players’ production Our Town, also  featuring live music by the Bengsons.

Alex Rodriguez, Javi Harnly, Monica Turner, Chelsea Holifield, David Naughton and Lewis Rawlinson in Triassic Parq; photo: Erik Scanlon.
Alex Rodriguez, Javi Harnly, Monica Turner, Chelsea Holifield, David Naughton and Lewis Rawlinson in Triassic Parq; photo: Erik Scanlon.

Triassic Parq

Ray of Light Theatre

San Francisco’s Ray of Light Theatre excels at offbeat and slightly warped contemporary musicals like Carrie the Musical or Jerry Springer the Opera. This year the company managed to do an entire season with almost no human characters. First up was the dinosaur sex comedy Triassic Parq, followed by Yeast Nation (the triumph of life), an inspirational love story about single-celled organisms from the makers of Urinetown. (Oddly, both were about young lovers rebelling against the doctrinaire theocracy of their society.) The bawdy reptilian romp Triassic Parq isn’t set during the age of the dinosaurs but amid a genetically-revived population in an ill-considered theme park — the same one we may know from Jurassic Park. But Marshall Pailet, Bryce Norbitz and Steve Wargo’s hilarious story is told entirely from the point of view of the velociraptors and Tyrannosaurs  themselves, an all-female population whose world is rocked when one of them spontaneously turns male.

Dezi Gallegos plays many parts in God Fights the Plague at the Marsh; photo: Molly DeCoudreaux.
Dezi Gallegos plays many parts in God Fights the Plague at the Marsh; photo: Molly DeCoudreaux.

God Fights the Plague

The Marsh

Now in its 25th year, the Marsh is a hotbed of long-running solo shows from such deft local writer-performers as Charlie Varon, Marga Gomez, Don Reed, Geoff Hoyle, Dan Hoyle, Josh Kornbluth, and the aforementioned Brian Copeland. This June, Petaluma 18-year-old Dezi Gallegos joined those esteemed ranks with God Fights the Plague, chronicling his search for God through interviews with ten  people representing different religions or atheistic philosophies — all of them embodied with chameleonlike versatility by Gallegos himself. What makes the piece so resonant is Dezi’s own journey and his account of the personal crises that set him in search of something larger to rely on.

Dan Kurtz, Nick Trengove and Mikka Bonel are a love triangle in Everybody Here Says Hello!; photo: Jim Norrena.
Dan Kurtz, Nick Trengove and Mikka Bonel are a love triangle in Everybody Here Says Hello!; photo: Jim Norrena.

Everybody Here Says Hello!

Wily West Productions

Local writer-director-producer Stuart Bousel has been impressively prolific this year, premiering his stage adaptation of Throwing Muses singer-songwriter Kristin Hersh’s memoir, Rat Girl, and his backstage comedy Pastorella. But it was Bousel’s Everybody Here Says Hello! that really knocked it out of the park this year (enough so that it won a TBA Award for outstanding world premiere play). This whip-smart and hysterically funny romantic comedy follows a smarmy sexual opportunist in a long-term relationship with a man who strikes up a romance with a straight friend’s girlfriend — and then wants to continue to date them both. “I am the most amazing heterosexual woman in the world!” his new lover crows when she finds out he’s not only mostly gay but also a drag performer. The play is packed with clever soliloquies from pretty much every character and a bit of meta-commentary about characters who are hard to tell apart because the same actor plays them (and because they’re similar characters to begin with, such as a pair of clingy exes).

Avery (Nicole Javier) and Alice (Lilain Bogovich) try to talk Catherine (Marilee Talkington*) out of the relationship doldrums in Aurora Theatre Company's Rapture, Blister, Burn; photo: David Allen.
Avery (Nicole Javier) and Alice (Lilain Bogovich) try to talk Catherine (Marilee Talkington) out of the relationship doldrums in Aurora Theatre Company’s Rapture, Blister, Burn; photo: David Allen.

Rapture, Blister, Burn

Aurora Theatre Company

Gina Gionfriddo’s Rapture, Blister, Burn comes down to four women sitting around and talking about feminism. The conversations are loaded by the fact that one of those women is married to the other’s grad school boyfriend, whom she “stole” years ago. Now one’s a stay-at-home mom with a frustratingly unambitious husband, and the other’s a hotshot feminist academic who never married. Each envies the other’s life. Add to this mix a post-feminist babysitter who wants to be a reality star and the academic’s ailing mother, who just wants to serve everyone cocktails. Stir in the man in the middle, and you have a sharp and funny comedy with unflinching insights about human nature in all its faults. Up-and-coming director Desdemona Chiang works with a terrific cast headed by Marilee Talkington—next seen in Berkeley Rep’s X’s and O’s (A Football Love Story)—as the formidable theorist and Gabriel Marin and Rebecca Schweitzer as the troubled couple, who’ll both next be seen in The Book Club Play at Center Rep.

Mike Iveson and Vin Knight as Supreme Court justices in Arguendo at Z Space; photo: Joan Marcus.
Mike Iveson and Vin Knight as Supreme Court justices in Arguendo at Z Space; photo: Joan Marcus.

Arguendo

Z Space

Who knew Supreme Court arguments could be so entertaining? Acclaimed New York experimental theater company Elevator Repair Service made a thunderous San Francisco debut over Halloween weekend with Arguendo, performing the oral arguments in the 1991 case Barnes v. Glen Theatre verbatim. The case is about whether laws about public nudity should apply to erotic dancers, leading to some amusing wrangling over what forms of artistic expression constitute constitutionally protected speech. But what’s particularly impressive is how dynamically the ERS ensemble brings the argument to life, with Supreme Court justices closing in on the lawyers on rolling chairs and animated text projections zooming back and forth between the legal precedents being discussed. In addition to acting as a hub for homegrown new work, Z Space has been attracting more and more distinguished visitors to San Francisco, such as New York’s legendary Wooster Group this coming February with Early Shaker Spirituals, featuring Frances McDormand and Suzzy Roche.

Jed Parsario flirts with danger -- and with Lindsey Schmeltzer's dragon girl -- in The Dragon Play at Impact Theatre.
Jed Parsario flirts with danger — and with Lindsey Schmeltzer’s dragon girl — in The Dragon Play at Impact Theatre.

The Dragon Play

Impact Theatre

Hidden away in a North Berkeley pizza-parlor basement, Impact Theatre has long been the proving ground where you can catch the dynamic work of the actors, directors and playwrights whose work will be all over the larger theaters in years to come. But even for an Impact fan like me, The Dragon Play represents a significant stepping-up of the company’s game. Jenny Connell Davis’ bittersweet love story between a boy and a dragon girl blends the mythic and the contemporary, sensuality and resentment, humor and sorrow in ways that feel fresh, exciting and breathtakingly beautiful. It’s elegantly staged by Tracy Ward, a local director who’s worked with Shotgun Players, AlterTheater and other Bay Area companies.

Maura Halloran as the titular cat in Pussy; photo by Claire Rice.
Maura Halloran as the titular cat in Pussy; photo by Claire Rice.

Pussy

New Conservatory Theatre Center

A revival of a one-woman show that played the EXIT Theatre’s DIVAfest two years ago, Maura Halloran’s Pussy is a marvelously sweet, funny, exasperating and ultimately satisfying portrait of a lesbian couple whose relationship is on the rocks. An  eager-to-please, conservative Canadian is far too willing to be treated like a doormat by her cruelly manipulative English girlfriend. Watching disapprovingly are their homophobic but curious Russian landlady, who seems to have a crush on one of them, and the slinking, casually destructive cat that’s clearly the dominant force in the household. Halloran slips between the roles with captivating smoothness, especially impressive in the role of the titular feline. Herself a Canadian import who’s become a welcome addition to the Bay Area performing scene, Halloran will next be seen in Central Works’ Enemies: Foreign and Domestic at the Berkeley City Club.

One encouraging trend is that so many plays this year have tackled the question of privilege in a direct and sobering way. You couldn’t come out of Lauren Gunderson’s Silent Sky, Carson Kreitzer’s Lasso of Truth  or  Gina Gionfriddo’s Rapture, Blister, Burn without pondering the secondary status of women in American society. At least four local productions this year have talked directly about police targeting young African-American men—Chinaka Hodge’s Chasing Mehserle, Rhett Rossi’s From Red to Black, Jinho “the Piper” Ferreira’s Cops and Robbers and Brian Copeland’s The Scion—and it’s hard not to think about those plays all over again when people are out in the streets protesting the deadly consequences of that dysfunctional relationship between the police and people of color.

In this season of reflection, it’s easy for me to see that there’s always too much going on in the Bay Area theater community for any one person to see.  Even having attended 121 plays and musicals this year, I’m all too keenly aware of dozens of important plays that I couldn’t make it to.  Still, I’m thankful: it’s a great problem to have.

Author

Sam Hurwitt

Sam Hurwitt is a freelance theater critic for KQED Arts, the Marin Independent Journal and the San Jose Mercury News in addition to his own theater and culture blog, The Idiolect.  You can find him on Twitter cleverly camouflaged as shurwitt.

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