10 best of 2012
on Bay Area stages
by Richard Dodds
In making a list of contenders for a theatrical Top 10 for 2012, I wound up with 20 easy possibilities. Not too shabby, considering that in some years coming up with just a requisite 10 has involved a shove here and a fudge there. Different tactics must be employed this time to contract the list to that magic 10 – an arbitrary number yet universally used because, in an anthropological guess, we have 10 fingers to easily count things that don't go beyond the deca-digit limit.
So, in no particular order, here are 10 entries meant to incorporate the best experiences that one theatergoer had in 2012.
The very notion of telling a true tale of racially railroaded justice done up in the style of an old minstrel show, with black performers "blacking up," sounded like a case of good intentions gone wrong. But director Susan Stroman (The Producers, Contact ), working with the songwriting team of John Kander and the late Fred Ebb (Cabaret, Chicago), turned minstrelsy back in on itself and defied the odds by creating an entertainment from a notorious stain on our racial history. ACT hosted Stroman's recreation of the Broadway production that had a short life in New York but was welcomed here.
The ghost and Mr. Moscone
Reactions to Ghost Light, the collaboration between Tony Taccone of Berkeley Rep and Jonathan Moscone of Cal Shakes, were mixed, but what should not be tempered is acknowledgment of the personal and theatrical bravery in confronting a painfully complicated subject. Taccone built his play from conversations with Moscone about the assassination of his father, Mayor George Moscone, and Moscone directed the play that looked at the baggage he himself carried from this unhappy legacy, combined with flashbacks to the dreadful day itself. A gutsy experiment for all involved.
Murder, mayhem, and Marat
Thrillpeddlers temporarily left the intimate confines of the Hypnodrome, where its Shocktoberfest productions of short pieces are annually staged, to take on a theatrical epic for which its sensibilities were ideally suited. Under Marc Huestis' producing umbrella, Thrillpeddlers presented a sprawling staging of Peter Weiss' Marat/Sade that might seem, under Russell Blackwood's direction, a madhouse within the madhouse of the script. But the madness was Thrillpeddlers' signature deceptive looseness that is actually on a carefully laid track.
Snoopy in the sky with diamonds
The idea of a stage sequel to the Peanuts comic strip, with the increasingly dysfunctional characters facing high school life, might seem both a cheesy, easy target and a sacrilege to those who grew up with Charles Schultz's characters (Snoopy is already dead after contracting rabies as the play begins). But Bert V. Royal's Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead is as much a bittersweet homage to the original as it is a satire of contemporary teenage angst and sexuality. Boxcar Theatre, with an excellent cast under Nick A. Olivero's direction, found the humor and humanity in Royal's script, and it even led me to start reading Peanuts again after a 30-year hiatus.
Andrew Jackson superstar
To mark its fall move to larger quarters in the former Post Street Theatre, and a name change from SF Playhouse, San Francisco Playhouse leapt into presidential politics with a vengeance with Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson. The ragged stylings of Broadway's recent thrash-rock musical befit Andrew Jackson, a self-made hero and self-styled populist who didn't hide the more brutal realities of the American presidency. The carefully orchestrated chaos under Jon Tracy's direction told us more about political reality than maybe many of us want to acknowledge.
Lorenzo Pisoni didn't have to run away to join the circus. He was born into it, and his childhood was spent playing straight man to his clowning father, Larry Pisoni, founder of the Pickle Family Circus. With astounding dexterity and his wise narration, Pisoni let us view the circus from the point of view of a child who longed for a life without a red rubber nose. ACT presented Humor Abuse early in the year, and brought it back for an encore run at the start of the new season. It was reminiscence as seen through a painful pratfall.
Those were the days
Was life really better without all the bells and whistles? Three channels on the TV, rotary telephones on which making a long-distance call was a big deal, and a society in which the road of life was well-marked. In Maple and Vine, playwright Jordan Harrison imagined a community where frazzled urbanites could buy into an Ozzie and Harriet lifestyle. But as director Mark Rucker's production at ACT revealed, you have to be careful what you wish for. Harrison peeked into the darker issues involved, with a message that the good old days may be best remembered and not relived.
Doctor in the house
Moliere was merrily mauled in A Doctor in Spite of Himself, which showed up at Berkeley Rep in a highly irreverent production concocted by Christopher Mayes and Steven Epps of Minneapolis' now-shuttered Theatre de la Jeune Lune. The jokes, gags, pop culture references, and needling of stereotypes that Mayes (also the director) and Epps (in the title role) hung along the plot of Moliere's 1666 comedy came so fast that a blink of an eye could mean a laugh lost. But another laugh was already being set up before eyelids had a chance to return to their upright position.
Around the world
Rights of Passage cast its net wide, over most of the globe, to look at the current state of affairs for queer men and women. New Conservatory Theatre Center Artistic Director Ed Decker and husband Robert Leone spent several years conducting interviews both here and abroad that they crafted into compelling theatrical form. The primary focus was on a young Balinese man struggling to reconcile a love for his culture with his love for other men. Director Arturo Catricala helped build a bridge to societies near and far.
Broadway and beyond
The touring productions presented here by SHN belong in their own category, though three of the year's offerings deserve to be on any Top 10 list. Jonathan Pryce was mesmerizing as the conniving vagabond in Harold Pinter's The Caretaker. It was impossible not to fall in love with the life-sized equine puppets in the epic War Horse. And the outrageous, hilarious, and oddly lovable Book of Mormon managed to sell out every seat weeks before its run had begun. And a Hasa Diga Eebowai to all.