The Best of Bay Area Theater in 2018

There must be a better way to sum up 2018 Bay Area Theater than flying away from the scene of the crime, but since I’m actually on a shaky Jet Blue flight on the eve of the New Year I’ll have to accept the situation. And accepting the situation is what this list is about: the situation of the country, the situation of a theater and performance culture that is too often automated and soulless, and, most depressingly, the situation of a great art form that still manages to gather sizable audiences, but to rather aesthetically and politically questionable ends.

There were moments of fire and passion and real insight in 2018, but over and over again they felt like dying stars in distant galaxies. These five stars burned the brightest and in many ways all of them were Black Swans, miracles of happenstance, the outliers of an increasingly dark age of false outrage, preening conformity, and aesthetic timidity. Yet, if you pay attention, there was always an individual—the playwright, the director, the choreographer, an actor, and in the case of our best production of the year, a company (albeit German but brought to us by the engaged presenters at Cal Performances) that just refused to accept the world in its present state.

Read More
Shotgun's 'Arcadia' Takes Up The Drama Of Those Who Come Last

Of all the theater companies in the Bay Area, the Shotgun Players, under founding artistic director Patrick Dooley’s guidance, is the most keen to the notion that theater is an occasion, that each performance is a gamble and a celebration of the play and the community that comes to see it. And it makes sense that Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia would represent a tantalizing bet for them. At his best, Stoppard is all about celebrations and Arcadia with its dual time periods (1809 and the present) is an attempt to feel the joy of the past in our fallen present.

Read More
Big Dance Theater's '17 C' Demands All Of Our Imagination

You never know what you’ve got until you’ve reached the end and sometimes even a long time after that—it’s true of performances, of books, even the mundane work of the day. We never know the true state of things until the last breath is drawn, you close your eyes, and the lights go out.

That’s one way you could think about Big Dance Theater’s mysterious and often-beautiful 17 C, conceived by Annie-B Parsons, and co-directed by Parsons and Paul Lazar. The importance of waiting until the end, to staying in a state of flux, to seeing what happens: it’s an interesting life lesson and a theatrical one, too.

Read More
Golden Thread's 'We Swim, We Talk, We Go To War' Has An Off-Handed Beauty

One of Mansour’s sharpest insights is that the drama of the Aunt and the Nephew is fluid and has few rules. Rather delightfully, it is also a source of joy, exactly what we expect and want from family. So when we first meet She (The Aunt) and He (The Nephew) we immediately get the sense that not only do these two people get a kick out of each other, but also that they’ve always gotten a kick out of each other. They want to be together and that’s a real pleasure to experience.

Read More
The Aurora's 'Everything is Illuminated' Is A Failure of Jonathan Safran Foer’s Aesthetic and Moral Imagination

There’s something distasteful about rank ambition and its stench is all over the Aurora Theater’s production of Simon Block’s stage adaption of Jonathan Safran Foer’s kind-of-celebrated, first novel, Everything is Illuminated. The whole enterprise is what we might call anxious for significance.

Read More
ACT's 'Men On Boats' Is An Illusion Of True Engagement

Men in Boats is as an incredible failure of imagination. The actual story of John Wesley Powell’s 1869 trip down the Colorado River is stirring and complex, a moment in history worthy of investigation, critique, celebration, whatever your game. Yet you can’t get to any of that without a real vision or philosophy of history. And a real vision would never reduce these complex people to stick figure goofballs.

What we get from Men on Boats is an illusion of real engagement and experimentation. It’s selling radical critique, revisionist history, feminist ideals, and theatrical invention, but it’s all packaging without soul or sense or care, just idle gestures to make us feel that something has happened.

Read More
The Berkeley Rep's 'Fairview' And The Rules Of The Game

Sometimes you see a play and you just want to make up some rules. Jackie Sibblies Drury’s Fairview has certainly garnered a lot of controversy and audiences and critics have been fairly tight-lipped about what actually happens in the Berkley Rep over the course of Drury’s 100-minute dissection of, I guess the best way to put it is, race and perception.

That’s the first trap of the evening and you should both enjoy and resist it.

Read More
Shotgun's 'Women Laughing Alone With Salad' Defies Its Own Sense Of The World

There are a lot of problems with Shelia Callaghan’s Women Laughing Alone With Salad and, interestingly enough, many of them touch on what we might call the limits of representation. Or just simply, what can you get away with in the theater. The talented but undisciplined Callaghan wants to get away with everything and director Susannah Martin, quite savvy at staging difficult texts, does her best to make that possible in a game but ungainly Shotgun Players production.

Read More
Marc Kate and Fauxnique's 'Girl' Is A Fragment Of Philosophy In The Guise Of A Lovely Bit Of Performance

Girl is a kind of beautiful abstraction that takes the last girl trope of slasher films and subjects it to a philosophy of violence. Of course we know the situation: after all the terror and killing is done, there’s always a girl with lovely brown hair struggling to escape, to claw her way back to something approaching a normal life, or any life at all. Her moment is always some combination of the smutty indifference of the snuff film and a survivor’s religious transcendence. Kate and Fauxnique choose transcendence (with snuff lurking at a distance) and the effect is, at times, stunning.

Read More
Schaubuhne's 'An Enemy of the People' Leads Us To Our Own Interrogation And That's Great

If An Enemy of the People is a battle about truth, both play and production relentlessly pursue its aesthetic correlative: how to depict reality. Today, Ibsen’s realism has become—in a greatly diluted form—ours. By embracing aggressive, non-realistic staging techniques, Ostemeier re-imagines Ibsen’s most radical goals of representing the world, and in fact demands that his production make us feel the shock of it, the shock of what is actually in front of us.

Read More