Marissa Skudlarek jumps on the end of year list bandwagon.
“Nothing is forever in the theater. Whatever it is, it’s here, it flares up, burns hot, and then it’s gone.”
—Karen (Celeste Holm) in All About Eve
Theater is an ephemeral art, so I’m dedicating my last column of the year to celebrating five of my most memorable theatergoing moments in 2013. I don’t quite consider this an official “best of” or “top five” list; it’s more a record of five times in 2013 when theater did what it ought to do: surprised me, jolted me, thrilled me. They are arranged in chronological order.
Act Two of Troublemaker, at Berkeley Rep – I didn’t find Dan LeFranc’s comedy-drama about a troubled middle-school boy 100% effective, but parts of it delighted me beyond measure. As I wrote on my blog at the time: “Act One toggles back and forth between realism and stylization; Act Two goes completely nuts; and Act Three brings it back down to earth to for a more naturalistic, emotional resolution. That second act, though, man… it might be the craziest thing I’ve seen at a Big Theater in a long time. There’s a soup kitchen populated by homeless pirate zombies, the rich kid lounges on a divan as “Goldfinger” plays, our heroes do an unconvincing drag act (leading up to a gay kiss that managed to draw gasps from the liberal-Berkeley audience), Bradley’s smart and mouthy friend Loretta turns into a pint-sized femme fatale… I watched it in disbelief and giddy delight that Berkeley Rep was producing this in such lavish style.”
Finale of Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812, at Kazino (NYC) – This show is a sung-through, pop-opera adaptation of the section of War and Peace where young Natasha Rostova nearly runs off with a lothario named Anatole. I had seen Dave Malloy’s earlier Russian-themed musical Beardo at Shotgun Players and felt ambivalent about it: it was very clever, but also very arch, and it kept me emotionally distant. The opening scenes of Natasha, Pierre had some of that same winking irony, but by the end, it became heart-on-sleeve sincere. Despite war, scandal, and Russian melancholia, Natasha and Pierre achieve a measure of peace and understanding — symbolized by the passing of the great comet (itself represented by a beautiful chandelier). What began as a boisterous Russian party ended on a note of subtle delicacy. Shotgun, or some other Bay Area company, had better plan to produce this as soon as the rights become available, because I want to see it again.
End of Act One of A Maze, at Just Theater – If a play is titled A Maze, you can’t fault its first act for being puzzling and mysterious. Rob Handel’s script interweaves four different stories, three of them basically realistic and one a strange fairy tale or fable. At the end of Act One, though, all of the stories come together in a way that seems obvious in hindsight, but is completely astonishing (amazing?) in the moment when it occurs. I saw a lot of full-length plays this year, but A Maze was the one where I couldn’t wait for intermission to be over because I had to know what would happen in Act Two. I can’t go into any more detail than that, because it would be a spoiler; but if you want to experience this moment for yourself, Just Theater will be re-mounting its production in February 2014.
Ellen’s Undone, at the San Francisco Olympians Festival – Sam Hurwitt is one of my favorite Bay Area theater critics; his reviews are thoughtful and candid, and my tastes seem to align pretty well with his. But knowing what makes a good play doesn’t guarantee that you can also write a good play. Hurwitt, though, made an impressive playwriting debut with Ellen’s Undone, a contemporary interpretation of the Helen of Troy story. It’s a full-length play with just two characters, one set, and two long scenes – constraints that would challenge even a far more experienced playwright. This 100-minute argument between two smart, stubborn, acidly witty people reminded me of nothing so much as a modern-day Noel Coward comedy (perhaps it helped that Maggie Mason employed her natural English accent to play Ellen). A triumph for Hurwitt and for the San Francisco Olympians Festival as well – which continues to present an impressive variety of new theater every year.
Tinker Bell’s death scene in Peter/Wendy, at Custom Made – J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan depicts a whimsical world, where children can fly by thinking happy thoughts, and even the villains are comically blustering or incompetent. Still, there are darker and more adult undercurrents throughout, which burst to the forefront in the scene where Tink drinks poison to save Peter’s life. Anya Kazimierski (Tink) was honest and raw and terrifying in her death scene, and then there was a long moment as Sam Bertken (Peter) cradled Tink’s body and regarded the audience, seemingly trying to make eye contact with every single person there, stretching out the tension until we could hardly stand it. Finally – and without Sam needing to ask us the famous question – someone in the row behind me piped up “I believe in fairies!” And then another person in another section: “I believe in fairies!” It was a magical moment because the play got a little out of control from what the actors had expected; it was a magical moment because we, as an audience, were all in it together.
These were five of the moments where everything clicked for me, as an audience member watching a performance. But they wouldn’t happen without those moments earlier in the theater-making process where everything clicks for the cast and crew – those miraculous moments in the rehearsal room where you realize that, oh wow, this is actually going to work. So I also want to acknowledge some of my most memorable moments as a playwright: my living-room reading of Orphée last January, when I learned that my translation was playable; the first read-through of Teucer, in which actors Eli Diamond and Carl Lucania were already firing on all cylinders; rehearsing my one-minute play Cultural Baggage and making some subtle cuts so that its three overlapping monologues fit together perfectly. To everyone who made these and all of my theater experiences of 2013 possible, thank you.
Like a great comet, theater flares up, burns hot, and then it’s gone.
And I do believe in fairies.
Marissa Skudlarek wishes you a New Year sprinkled with fairy dust.