Stuart Bousel gives us his Best of 2013 list.
Three years ago I decided that I wanted to start my own Bay Area Theater Awards, because my opinions are just as legitimate as anyone else’s, the awards I give out are as valuable as any other critical awards, (recipients of the SEBATA, or the Stuey, if you prefer, get nothing but my admiration and some free publicity), and also because there’s a fairly good chance that I’ve seen a lot of theater the usual award givers haven’t seen. The best thing about the Bay Area theater scene is that there is a huge diversity in the offerings, and so much on the table to begin with. No one person can see it all, and therefore it’s important to share with one another the highlights of our time in the audience seat, if only to create a greater awareness of what and who is out there making stuff.
Also, there are some people who think I don’t like anything, and I feel a need to not only prove them wrong, but to do so by expressing how much of the local color I do love and admire, as opposed to just pointing out that the reason they think I don’t like anything is because I generally don’t like *their* work (oh… I guess I did just point that out, didn’t I?). Normally I post these “awards” on my Facebook page, but this year I decided to bring them to the blog because the mission statement of the SEBATA is pretty in-line with the mission statement of Theater Pub, and having come to the close of an amazing year of growth for the blog, it now has a much farther reach than my Facebook page could ever hope to have. Congratulations SF Theater Pub Blog- you just won a Stuey.
Anyway, because I am a product of the generation that grew up with the MTV Movie Awards- and, because I’m the only person on the voting committee and thus can do what I like- I have decided that my categories are purely arbitrary and can be stretched to allow me to write about anyone I feel like. The two limits are 1) I can’t give myself an award (though I can have been involved in the show on a limited level) and 2) I won’t go over thirteen (though there may be ties for some awards). Because seriously, how (more) self indulgent would this be without either of those rules? Oh, 3) I won’t give out awards for how bad something was. I’m here to be positive. And chances are those people were punished enough.
To all my friends and frenemies in the Bay Area Theater Scene… it’s been a great year. Let’s you and me do it again sometime. Well… most of you.
And now, presenting the Fourth Annual Stuey Awards…
BEST THEATER FESTIVAL
“Pint Sized IV” (San Francisco Theater Pub)
Pint Sized Plays gets better each year, and it’s honestly one of two things I actually miss about working at the Cafe Royale (the other is the uniqueness of doing Shakespeare there, which for some reason works in a completely magical way I wish it worked more often on traditional stages). This year the festival was put together by Neil Higgins, who did an amazing job, and I think we had some of the best material yet. The evening as a whole felt incredibly cohesive, with a theme of forgiveness and letting go, archly reflective of our decision to leave the Cafe Royale, and I think incredibly relevant to a lot of our audience. We knew Pint Sized could be very funny, and very socially pointed, but I’m not sure we had ever conceived of it as moving and this year it was, thanks in no small part to our writers (Megan Cohen, Peter Hsieh, Sang S. Kim, Carl Lucania, Daniel Ng, Kirk Shimano and Christian Simonsen), directors (Jonathan Carpenter, Colin Johnson, Tracy Held Potter, Neil Higgins, Charles Lewis III, Meghan O’Connor, Adam L. Sussman) and actors (Annika Bergman, Jessica Chisum, Andrew Chung, AJ Davenport, Eli Diamond, Caitlin Evenson, Lara Gold, Matt Gunnison, Melissa Keith, Charles Lewis III, Brian Quakenbush, Rob Ready, Casey Robbins, Paul Rodrigues, Jessica Rudholm). The evening would start off with a magical performance by the Blue Diamond Bellydancers, whose combination of skill and spectacle got our audiences excited for what was to come. As we moved through the pieces, each by turns funny and poignant, each in some way or another about finding something, losing it, letting it go, and then coming back stronger, you could feel the audience grow warmer and closer each night. By the time Rob Ready gave the closing monologue, fixing each audience member in turn with a smile, you could feel everyone really listening and you could hear a pin drop in the room, and that’s saying something for the noisy by nature Cafe Royale. I think a lot of love went into the festival this year, and not just because it might be the last, and the product of that love was real magic and like the best theater- you had to be there. And if you weren’t, you really missed out.
“The Motherf**ker With The Hat” (San Francisco Playhouse)
I saw a lot of decent, solid, well done theater this year but I had a hard time connecting to a lot of it, which was rarely a flaw with the show and probably had more to do with where I was/am as a person (lots of change this year). Then again, something about really good theater is that it can get you out of your own head and into some other world, for a while. Towards the end of the year, I saw three shows I really really liked: “Crumble, or Lay Me Down, Justin Timberlake” at Bigger Than A Bread Box Theater Company, “Peter/Wendy” at Custom Made Theater Company, and “First” at Stage Werx, produced by Altair Productions/The Aluminous Collective and Playground. Still, San Francisco Playhouse’s production of Stephen Adly Guirgis’s “The Motherf**ker With The Hat”, directed by Bill English, was probably my favorite show of the year. Who knows why it has an edge on the others? Maybe because as someone who spent most of their childhood weekends in New York it seemed oddly familiar, or maybe it was the deft handling by the universally excellent cast (Carl Lumbly, Gabriel Marin, Rudy Guerrero, Margo Hall, Isabelle Ortega) of the complex relationships and dialogue that Guirgis does so well, or maybe it was just refreshing to see such a simple, honest play in what, for me, was a year characterized by a lot of stylistically interesting but emotionally cold theater. There is something very passionate, scathing, bombastic and yet also humble and forgiving about Guirgis’ work that I think makes him such an important voice in modern American drama and English’s production brought all that out with an easy grace. The show really worked, and got me out of my head, and when I went back to my life I felt much better for the journey. What more can you ask of a theater experience?
“Paris/Hector” (San Francisco Olympians Festival)
I attend a lot of readings every year, and run a reading festival myself, so I’ve come to greatly value a really well done reading. This year, the award goes to director Katja Rivera and writers Kirk Shimano and Bridgette Dutta Portman, whose pair of one acts about the pair of Trojan princes Paris and Hector made for one of the best nights of this past year’s San Francisco Olympians Festival. Part of what I loved about it was that in one evening we saw the amazing variety the festival can offer: Kirk’s play was a comedy with a poignant moment or two, while Bridgette’s was a faux-classical drama- written in verse no less. Though the writers are the center of attention at the festival, credit really has to be given to Katja Rivera, who as the director of both pieces, made many simple but effective choices to highlight the best elements of both works and utilize the talents of her excellent cast: Yael Aranoff, Molly Benson, Jeremy Cole, Mackenszie Drae, Allison Fenner, Dana Goldberg, John Lennon Harrison, Michelle Talgarow, Alaric Toy. With the combined excellent story-telling of the performers (including beautiful and surprising singing from Yael, Molly and Dana), the thoughtfulness of the scripts, and the cohesiveness of the whole, this night of the festival stood out best in what was a consistently strong year at the Olympians.
BEST SHORT PLAY
“My Year” by Megan Cohen (Bay One Acts Festival)
Megan Cohen’s “My Year” is the kind of thing I wish more short plays would be: dynamic, personal, and complete. In a sea of short plays that are really fragments, or meet-cute plays, it’s always lovely to see something with a beginning, a middle, and end, and full-formed characters having actual interactions and not just feeling like Girl A and Guy B, thrown together by the whimsy of the playwright to make a point (though of course, the right playwright can pull that off- which is why so many people try to ape it). A friend of mine described “My Year” as “A fun little 90s indie film on stage” and my reaction when watching it was “Oh, Dear God, convince Meg to let me write a companion piece to this!” because let’s face it: at least a third of what I write is a 90s film on stage. My own vanity aside, what I loved about this play (directed by Siobhan Doherty, starring Emma Rose Shelton, Theresa Miller, Nkechi Live, Allene Hebert, Jaime Lee Currier, and Luna Malbroux) was that it felt constantly on the move, while still being mostly composed of intimate moments between a group of women at a birthday party. Like a lot of the theater that I really loved this year, it also just struck a personal chord, watching this young woman (Emma Rose Shelton) trying to enjoy the party her friends have thrown for her (though she doesn’t like surprise parties) despite there being no food and a random stranger (Theresa Miller) who worms her way in only to turn out to be the troublemaker she’s originally pegged for. Megan’s writing had its usual combination of smart and sentimental, but whereas a lot of her other work heads into absurdity and/or extreme quirkiness (not that this is bad), “My Year” stayed very grounded and found its meaning in that effort to stay grounded, making what might be a quiet little play in anyone else’s oeuvre, a nice change of pace in Cohen’s. The final moment, where the characters howl at the moon because what else are you going to do after a shitty birthday, felt like a communal sigh even the audience was in on, probably because we could all relate to Shelton’s character, and while having always loved and admired Meg’s work, this is probably the first time I related to it so wholeheartedly.
The Peter O’Toole Award For General Awesomeness
Linda Huang (Stage Manager, Tech, Box Office, Everything)
You know how the Oscars and Tonys give out Lifetime Achievement Awards for people whose contribution is so massive that it would kind of be criminal to pick one work or contribution so instead they just get an award for basically being themselves? You know, like how Peter O’Toole got that award because at some point somebody realized that he was pervasively brilliant and always in fashion and therefore easily forgotten because things like “Oh, well, he’ll win next year” often times factors in to who we recognize, meaning things like reliability and consistency do not? Well, for the first time ever in the history of the SEBATAs, I’m creating The Peter O’Toole Award for General Awesomeness and giving it to Linda Huang, without whom, in all seriousness, I believe that small theater in San Francisco would probably grind to a halt. Earlier this year, I got recognized by the Weekly as a “Ringmaster” of the theater scene, but frankly I (and people like me) could not do what we do without having Linda (and people like her) constantly coming to our aid despite being paid a fraction of what they’re worth and half the time being forgotten because what they do isn’t in the immediate eye of the audience. Linda is a total gem of the theater scene. She wears many hats, though she’s probably best known for running light boards, and one of my favorite things when attending the theater is running into her, usually working in some capacity I previously was unaware she was qualified to do (note: Linda is qualified to do everything). What I love best about Linda (aside from her cutting sense of humor and tell-it-like-it-is demeanor) is her incredible generosity: she does so much for local theater and rarely gets paid, and even when she does get paid she often says, “Pay me last.” A true team player, and one we don’t thank enough, especially as she’s the only person who seems to know how to get the air conditioning in the Exit Theatre to work.
BEST BREAK THROUGH
Atticus Rex, Open Mic Night In Support of the Lemonade Fund (SF Theater Pub/Theater Bay Area Individual Services Committee)
I never expected to include a note about someone who performed at an open mic/variety show, but I wanted to shout out to Atticus Rex, a young performer who literally made his performance debut at the San Francisco Theater Pub/ISC fundraiser for the Lemonade Fund this year. A last minute replacement, Atticus and a friend performed some original hip-hop for our audience of mostly performance professionals and their friends, and despite the formidable crowd and the first time nerves, he basically killed it. Even when he made a mistake it worked: he’d call himself out, apologize, and start again, somehow without ever missing a beat. His lyrics are very tight and poetic, and the contrast between the power in his words and his humbleness at approaching and leaving the stage works so well you’d almost think it was an act- except he later confessed he’d never performed live before, and it couldn’t have been more sincere. With genuine hope he never loses his sincerity, while also continuing to grow his confidence and experience, I wanted to take a moment to say congratulations once again, and thank you for reminding us all what it looks like to really take a risk onstage.
Genie Cartier and Audrey Spinazola (Genie and Audrey’s Dream Show, SF Fringe Festival)
What’s potentially cuter than “Clyde the Cyclops?” Very little, but these two ladies and their breathless, funny, and surreal little clown show come dangerously close to giving Clyde a run for his money, and it’s the only show I saw at the Fringe this year that I wished my boyfriend had also seen. Bravely straddling the bridge between performance artists and acrobats, this collage of monologues, poems, jokes, mime, clowning, puppetry, stunts, music, and children’s games, is like watching two hyper-articulate kids on pixie sticks go nuts in a club house, but only if those kids had an incredible sense of timing and arch senses of humor (not to mention very flexible bodies). I’ve never been a huge fan of circus stuff (I like it as an accent, sometimes, but as entertainment on its own it doesn’t tend to hold my interest long), but I think I’d be a fan of anything that had these two women in it. Their ability to play off each other is the key to making their show work, and when you watch it you have that sense of being let into the private make-believe world of people who have found kindred spirits in one another. It’s an utterly magic combination and from what I know of other people who saw it, it basically charmed the pants off everyone. Or at least, everyone who has a soul.
BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTOR
Ben Calabrese (Apartment in “Crumble, or Lay Me Down, Justin Timberlake”)
I saw a lot of great performances by men this year (Sam Bertken in “Peter/Wendy”, Tim Green and Gregory Knotts in “First”, Paul Rodrigues “Pint Sized Plays IV”, Will Hand “Dark Play”, Casey Robbins “Oh Best Beloved!”), but this one really took my breath away (though since Sam Bertken actually got me to sincerely clap for fairies in Peter/Wendy, he gets a second shout out). Ben’s role, which is to literally embody the voice of a neglected apartment, is the kind of role that could either be the best thing about the show, or the worst. Luckily for Bigger Than A Breadbox’s production of “Crumble, or Lay Me Down Justin Timberlake (written by Sheila Callaghan), Ben rocked it. Bouncing around the stage, dive bombing the furniture, all the while spouting, eloquently, Callaghan’s beautiful and complex monologues, Ben was so utterly watchable it was impossible not to buy the conceit of the role, and so moments when he has an orgasm from having the radiator turned on, or turns his fingers into loose electrical wires, don’t seem ridiculous, but made immediate and total sense. It’s usually not a compliment to tell an actor they did a tremendous job being an inanimate object, but what Ben did so well was illustrate that a home, while not “alive”, does indeed have a life to it. And if that life occasionally fixes the audience with Ben’s particular brand of “scary actor stare” why… all the better.
BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTRESS
Brandice Marie Thompson (Georgia Potts in “First”)
Oh, this was a tough one. As usual, the actresses of the Bay Area are kicking ass and taking names no matter what their role, and my decision to pick Brandice above the rest is because I think she best exemplified that thing which so many actresses have to do, which is take a relatively underwritten role in a play about men and turn it into a rich, believable character who somehow manages to steal the show. Evelyn Jean Pine, who wrote “First”, is a fantastic writer and she writes women and men equitably well, and due credit must go to her for the creation and inclusion of this character in a story mostly about male egos, but in a lesser capable actresses hands, this role could have been annoying, or forgettable, or purely comical, and Brandice avoided all of these traps while making the character utterly charming at the same time. The truth is, her arc became much more interesting to me than that of the main character, and I think a strong argument could be made that “First” was just as much about Georgia as it was about Bill Gates. Director Michael French no doubt had a hand in this too, but in the end it’s a performer who makes or breaks a role and Brandice’s ability to combine mousy with spunky with unexpected and yet thoroughly authentic character turns was deeply satisfying to watch. Georgia kicked ass and took names, because Brandice does. Runners up: Melissa Carter (“Lay Me Down, Justin Timberlake”, Bigger Than A Breadbox), Allison Jean White (“Abigail’s Party”, SF Playhouse), Sam Jackson (“Oh Best Beloved!”, SF Fringe Festival), Courtney Merril (“Into the Woods”, Ray of Light), Elissa Beth Stebbins (“Peter/Wendy”, Custom Made Theatre Company).
BEST FUSION THEATER PIECE
“Nightingale” (Davis Shakespeare Ensemble/SF Fringe Festival)
This little gem at this year’s fringe festival was adapted from the myth of Philomel by Gia Battista, with music by Richard Chowenhill, directed by Rob Sals (with Battista), and staring Gabby Battista, April Fritz and Tracy Hazas as three remarkably similar looking women who each take a turn playing the heroine of a bizarre fairy tale (all the other characters in the story are played by them as well). Dance, pantomime, narration, song and traditional theater techniques all came together in a way that was astonishingly clean and charming in its simplicity. The black and white aesthetic used to unify the look of the show and performers gave the whole thing a quality both modern and timeless, and in its gentle, dreamy tone the sharp elements of social commentary and satire often seemed more brutal and impactful. Of everything I saw at the Fringe this past year, which included a number of excellent works, this piece has stayed with me the longest.
BEST SOLO SHOW
“Steve Seabrook: Better Than You” by Kurt Bodden (The Marsh)
I saw a lot more solo performance than usual this year (including works by Annette Roman, Laura Austin Wiley, Alexa Fitzpatrick, Jenny Newbry Waters, Rene Pena), and realizing how good it can be is, in and of itself, kind of a miracle because I used to say things like, “Theater begins with two people” and “If Aeschylus had wanted to write sermons he wouldn’t have added Electra”. Kurt’s show was not created this past year, it has a long history, but I only saw it in its most recent Marsh incarnation and I’m hoping he’s been able to find ways to keep it going (his Facebook feeds indicate this is so). A satire of motivational speakers and the cult of self-improvement, “Steve Seabrook” manages to be so much more by combining satirical fiction with moments of the kind of personal monologue (still fiction) that permeates solo shows. The result is a sense of development, of a story (Steve’s) unfolding in real time while another story, (Steve’s Seminar) plays itself out over the course of a weekend. Playing off the convention of a backstage comedy (we see the seminar, then we see Steve when he’s not “on”), Kurt’s brilliance as a performer is evident in the seamless transition from one to the other, again and again, carrying a throughline that shows us not only why Steve buys into his mantras, but why any of us buy into anything we’ve come up with (or adopted from someone else) to keep us moving through life’s ups and downs. At once very funny and cutting, while also moving and real (and yes, fuck it, kind of inspirational), Kurt’s show also gets a nod for its fantastic takeaway schwag: a keychain light with Steve’s name on it, with which every audience member is encouraged to shine their light in a dark world.
Rebecca Longworth and Joan Howard, “Oh Best Beloved” (SF Fringe Festival)
“Oh Best Beloved” got a lot of attention and deservedly so- well acted, well designed, it was a genuinely fun piece of theater. Perhaps most deserving of being singled out in the project, however, are director Rebecca Longworth and partner Joan Howard, who share credit for conceptualizing the show (in which Joan also played a part and had, in my opinion, the single best moment in the show), and who lead the rest of the company in adapting the material from Ruyard Kipling’s “Just So Stories”. Anyone who saw the show could easily see that it had about a million moving parts, and Longworth and Howard’s ability to keep all those plates spinning on a small budget and under the strict conditions of the San Francisco Fringe Festival (they literally put up and pulled down a full set with each performance) is worthy of award in and of itself, but the level of commitment and craft they were able to pull from their design team and performers was equally as impressive. Everything about the show, even the parts that didn’t work as well as others, felt thought through and done with panache, making this ambitious and unique experience a delightful jewel in the SF Fringe Festival’s crown.
Bill English, “Abigail’s Party” (SF Playhouse)
Scenery in general doesn’t do much for me. I enjoy good scenery, but the best scenery should kind of vanish into the background, in my opinion, and be something you barely pay attention to. As a result, I’m often just as happy with a blank stage, or really well thought out minimal set, as I am with a full one, so long as the play I’m watching is good. That said, every now and then I will see a set I just adore, and this year it was Bill English’s set for SF Playhouse’s “Abigail’s Party”, by Mike Leigh, directed by Amy Glazer. Basically a living room/dining room/kitchenet combo, this fully realized “home” was very well crafted as a place, but more importantly, it really worked as a place where people lived. The 70s style was at once present without being overwhelming, evoking the time period without looking like it was a homage to the time period, or a museum dedicated to 70s kitch. I mean, it honestly reminded me of numerous homes I’d played in as a child (I was born in 1978) and all the wallpaper looked like wallpaper in my parents’ home before my mother completely re-did the house in 1990 because “we can admit this is ugly… now”. The amazing thing about English’s set is that it didn’t seem ugly, in spite of being made up entirely of patterns and colors we now find appalling. He made it all work together, the way people once did, and the final result was simultaneously comfortable and dazzling. I remember thinking, waiting for the play to begin, “I could live here.”
And last, but not least, every year I pick…
MY PERSONAL FAVORITE EXPERIENCE TO WORK ON
“The Age of Beauty” (No Nude Men Productions/The Exit Theatre)
I had taken a break from directing my own work, but with this nine performance workshop I allowed myself to re-discover that, as much as I like directing plays by others, there is nothing quite as satisfying as feeling like I’m telling a very personal story of my own and having the final say on how that happens. Of course, such experiences are only rewarding when you get to work with great actors, and I was lucky to have four amazing women (Megan Briggs, Emma Rose Shelton, Allison Page, Sylvia Hathaway) who were willing to go on this adventure with me, always keeping stride as I made cuts and changed lines, memorizing a mountain of material in Emma and Sylvia’s case, and crafting subtle characters who had to be both different from each other and relatively interchangeable at the same time. When I had a hard time articulating what I was going for, they would nod and smile and then show me what I meant by doing it better than I could describe it. When the show opened by the skin of its teeth it had one of those minor miracle opening nights, where even though you’re just a tiny bit unprepared (all my fault, I kept changing the script), it somehow all comes together and really works. Over the course of the show, as their performances grew and refined (our final two nights were simply perfect), I was able to see what flaws still remained in the script (two pages, middle of scene of scene two were cut the day after we closed), and any writer of new work will tell you that’s the best experience you can hope for on a first production. Shout outs to my awesome design team Cody Rishell, Jim Lively and Wil Turner IV! “The Age of Beauty” helped restore some of my lagging faith in the theater process, and made me commit to doing more of my own work in the coming year.
Stuart Bousel runs the San Francisco Theater Pub blog, and is a Founding Artistic Director of the San Francisco Theater Pub. You can find out more about his work at http://www.horrorunspeakable.com.