Best theater of 2016

  • by Richard Dodds
  • Tuesday December 27, 2016
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And the award for most depressingly prescient production goes to Berkeley Rep for It Can't Happen Here. This new adaptation of Sinclair Lewis' 1935 novel about a presidential election in which a populist-spouting plutocrat defeats a middle-of-the-roader seemed like overkill during a fall run that ended just before T-Day. Since there didn't seem much suspense about who would win in November, the production felt more ha-ha than uh-oh. Ha-ha, indeed.

But for the moment at least, the sun still rises each morning, and best-of-the-year lists still appear as each December runs up to its 31st day. What follows is a list both arbitrary and capricious, one person's opinions formed from a fraction of all the theatrical opportunities available to Bay Area audiences. So, in no particular order, here are the 10 productions of 2016 that vividly resonate as we get ready to start building a new list for 2017.

The Wild Party Ray of Light Theatre surpassed all expectations with its production of Andrew Lippa's off-Broadway musical. The original New York run was not a success, but at the Victoria Theatre, it blossomed in director Jenn BeVard's production of synchronized sprawl, recalling both the vaudeville framework of Chicago and the multi-story jigsaw of Follies. Sets, costumes, staging, performances, and music all came together to realize the original production's ambitions.

Brian Dykstra (center) played a tempestuous chef at a struggling restaurant in the world premiere of Theresa Rebeck's luminous Seared at San Francisco Playhouse. Photo: Jessica Palopoli

Seared San Francisco Playhouse offered the world premiere of Theresa Rebeck's play set in a restaurant kitchen where the dramatic stakes may seem rather small. They aren't, of course, to the mercurial chef so wonderfully played by Brian Dykstra, or to the staff that he seems in constant battle with. The playwright found the luminous in the mundane, and Margarett Perry's direction uncovered the magic between the words that took on much weightier issues of whether or not scallops should be on the menu.

The Brothers Size The overwhelming fearsome performances displayed by LaKeidrick S. Wimberly, Gabriel Christian, and Julian Green galvanized Tarell Alvin McCraney's play about sorely tested brotherly love. It was all pulled together in Darryl V. Jones' pressure-cooked production for Theatre Rhino.

A House Tour Z Space was turned into a maze of rooms for Peter Sinn Nachtrieb's site-specific and actor-specific play that is an absurdist tragi-comedy with a heavy dose of silliness. What is supposed to be the tour of a celebrated mansion becomes the journey into the mind of its peculiar docent played by Danny Scheie. The combination of playwright and actor was a heady one as they played to and off each other's talents in a finely tuned immersive experience directed by Jason Eagan.

Brandon Dahlquist, left, played a movie character, and Jeffrey Bryan his screenwriting creator, in San Francisco Playhouse's outstanding production of City of Angels. Photo: Jessica Palopoli

City of Angels This 1989 Broadway musical needs sharp-as-a-tack skills in every department, something San Francisco Playhouse was able to amply provide. The ingenious plot that is both the story of a movie being made in old Hollywood and the interwoven scenes of the movie itself is filled with snappy dialogue and a clever score that director Bill English and his cast hit squarely on the head.

The Unfortunates This collaborative effort, developed at ACT following an Oregon Shakespeare Festival run, took us on a unique journey into one man's private hell that, in a most unexpected fashion, also found ways to joyous manifestation. During some war in an unspecified past, a POW is struck into unconsciousness that sends him into a woozy nightclub where a phantasmagoria of delights and horrors unfolds. The opportunity to emerge in a state of grace helps lighten the hovering dark clouds of his final moments.

Our Enemies: Lively Scenes of Love and Combat Even those who don't believe they have any agenda are often seen as having one by those who do. That's the tug and pull that the central character undergoes in Yussef El Guindi's intriguing play about breaking from the lockstep that any group can feel is necessary among a dominant culture. In this case, it's an aspiring Egyptian-American author who is pressured to pursue some specific Arab-American philosophies that not even those around her can agree upon. Director Torange Yeghiazarian brought out the humor, irony, and tragedy for Golden Thread Productions.

946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips The estimable Emma Rice and her Kneehigh Theatre troupe from the UK are in their fourth foray to the Bay Area, and again they have delivered a wonderland of theatrical ingenuity that fluidly flows through time. Based on a novel by Michael Morpurgo (War Horse), this is a tale of a sleepy English village that is suddenly uprooted by Yankee troops who need the beach to practice for the upcoming D-Day invasion. In the culture clash, both tragedies and wonders unfold, in a production that gets high impact from its low-tech charms.

Casa Valentina What could have been the humdrum drama set in a niche world turned out to be an entertaining and nuanced entry into that environment. New Conservatory Theatre Center presented a stylish rendering of Harvey Fierstein's most recent Broadway play under Becca Wolff's direction. Set in a rundown Catskills resort in the early 60s, the play is based on an actual establishment where heterosexual men could indulge their urge to dress and behave as everyday women. It was a little Eden that collapsed, ironically, in the march toward sexual liberation.

King Charles III Set in a near-future that can arrive in a heartbeat, Mike Bartlett's audacious mashup of contemporary parlance and Shakespearean stylings imagines the immediate aftermath of Queen Elizabeth II's death and Prince Charles' ascension to the throne. Amidst often amusing squabbles of the immediate family arises an intriguing political crisis. Should the new king violate the constitution by refusing to put his pro forma signature on legislation that undermines democracy? Bartlett and director David Muse convince us that a contemporary tale of a monarchy whose members we know so well could swell into something of Shakespearean proportions.

Honorable mentions: Whittling down the superior theatrical offerings of 2016 to a Top 10 was difficult, and several productions kept trying to edge their ways into the list. So here are six more memorable moments that happened on Bay Area stages: San Francisco Playhouse's delightful production of the gem-like musical She Loves Me; Oren Stevens and Ariel Craft's inventive adaptation of The Awakening, Kate Chopin's proto-feminist 1899 novel, for the Breadbox Theatre at the Exit; Will Eno's quirkily amusing, vaguely disturbing look at the meaning of life in The Realistic Jones at ACT; San Francisco Playhouse's production of Jennifer Haley's The Nether, a disturbing look into the future of virtual reality that asks if horrific fantasy can cross the line into criminality; Stuart Bousel's fresh take on silicon civilization in Adventures in Tech (with Pillow Talk on the Side) at PianoFight Theatre, which ventured into the more merrily skewed nooks and crannies of the digital world; and Julia Cho's Aubergine at Berkeley Rep, which demonstrated how food and its tastes help define everything from families to huge swathes of society.