The Best of Bay Area Theater in 2018
December 31/January 1: The Changeover
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.
So, in descending order, let’s countdown the old year as the New Year, uncertain and hopeful, enters the fray.
5:The Berkeley Rep’s Fairview
Jackie Sibblies Drury’s Fairview isn’t a great play, but it’s smartly constructed and timely one. It catches our culture at a desperate moment and demands that we respond in kind. Whether or not you feel like responding is part of the puzzle of its allure and it’s one of the few plays in recent years where it will matter what people think of it not now, but a year, two years, ten years down the line.
Was Drury onto something more than timeliness or was she one more symptom of our decaying civil life? My guess is that Fairview is both, but I hope it’s the latter and that this year’s provocation will turn in future, better years, quaint. Still, Drury set part of the theater world on fire and she did it with daring and a fair amount of skill. Good for the Berkeley Rep, where theater like this rarely sees the light of day.
4:The center rep’s red speedo
Lucas Hnath’s Red Speedo is a valentine arrow dipped in poison and aimed right at the heart of what’s left of American exceptionalism. And you couldn’t find a more perfect metaphor for our collective and diminished status than competitive swimming. After all, doping it up (weed, opioids, the return of coke, heroin, kids vaping) is perhaps the only thing this fractured country agrees on. Hnath is a mainstream innovator, maybe the only one left in our theater, blessed with immense technical skill and true religious fervor. He desperately wants us to be better, to do better, and knows how vicious a struggle that will be.
That Markus Potter’s beautifully designed and acted production happened at the Center Rep felt like a cosmic joke. This is a company that treats Shirley Valentine as an excursion into the farthest reaches of the avant-garde and then out of nowhere produces Red Speedo. One wishes it weren’t a theatrical miracle, but what the company aimed for every time out. So great job Center Rep, but will you ever do it again? Will you even bother to try?
SF/Fact’s immersive dance, performance piece Death at CounterPulse under choreographer Charles Slender-White’s direction asks a simple, wistful question: what if we could bring our dead friends back to life, would we and what would they think of us and the world at large? Slender-White’s answers are uncanny, slow-burn terrifying, and a reminder that life belongs to the living and that the dead have other worlds better suited to their temperament and needs.
Slender-White’s vision is shocking, the dancing beautiful and engaged, and the whole experience a lesson in what happens when you take metaphors seriously, not to mention philosophically. Images of Death keep haunting me months after seeing it: a blank stare, an egg, a disco, a schoolroom, and a glowing, empty, human carcass among many others. Here is a piece of art worthy of human beings—the living, the dead, and all those caught in-between our wishes and nightmares.
2: UBUNTU THEATER PROJECT’S HAMLET
The Ubuntu Theater Project’s absolute belief in community leads them into strange and revelatory productions and Artistic Director and co-founder Michael Socrates Moran’s take on Hamlet is another triumph for Oakland’s most dynamic theater company. Actually you can put them at the top of the dynamism scale for most of the Bay Area and probably any other America city, too.
You would think that a production that featured the director in the title role of possibly the most famous play in the world would be one of those Kenneth Branagh star turns, but here the emphasis is on the ensemble. Because of that we learn that Hamlet is truly an undiscovered country full of Player Kings and Queens, loyal, alert guards, canny grave diggers, sad daughters and other sons seeking vengeance, not to mention a population terrified and in peril. You wouldn’t have guessed that Denmark and Oakland and the country at large had so much in common, but they all come together in this thrilling and epic Hamlet to a sobering, anguished end.
1: SCHAUBUHNE’S AN ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE
There are so many ways that you could praise Schaubuhne’s production of Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People that had a too-short, two-night run at Cal Performances in November—the amazing acting, the inventive design, the visionary direction, and taking Ibsen’s over one hundred year old play and making it seem as if it were written in one hot run of passion yesterday. But all of those exemplary qualities pale before one crucial aspect that we must take to heart.
Thomas Ostermeier’s production demands that you pay attention.
You might think that this is a picayune point, but I can think of no greater critique of the Bay Area theater culture, and no greater compliment for a piece of art. You must pay attention. Without attention, Schaubuhne’s An Enemy of the People has nothing for you, but if you bothered to watch instead of walked out, you surely received countless and rare gifts that are still expanding the breadth and depth of your soul.
That’s the resolution all theatergoers should take: pay attention, set yourselves free, and save your souls.