Cygnet Theatre's production of "Water by the Spoonful" was among the best theatrical productions of the year. Karli Cadel Photography
It’s never easy wrapping up an entire year of theater – its highs, its lows, its joys, its sorrows. Theater is such a rich and sprawling pageant of artistic craft and emotional expression. Those who make it reside in a magical world in which each living, unfolding moment matters. Those like myself who watch, listen and feel are, for a couple of hours in the darkness, privileged to share a bit of that magic.
After very little live theater locally in 2020 and 2021, it returned revived and reinvigorated this past year. Thank you to all the theater-makers who’ve ridden out the pandemic and continued to create, produce and perform. Your spirit and resolve are felt.
Now, to my choices (in alphabetical order) for the five most outstanding plays and musicals of 2022 …
• “An Iliad,” North Coast Repertory Theatre. Ten years after I first saw the one-person drama by Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare onstage (at La Jolla Playhouse), The Poet’s monologue is more graphic than ever. North Coast Rep’s production starring stentorian-voiced Richard Baird was explosive and relentless, rather like the warfare itself that the 90-minute play indicts. Providing haunting accompaniment behind a scrim was Amanda Schaar on cello.
• “As You Like It,” New Fortune Theatre Company. Speaking of Baird and Schaar, the theater troupe they co-founded in 2014 returned to live productions after a five-year hiatus with a gloriously unfettered staging of Shakespeare’s romp in the Forest of Arden. The choice of venue – the little park behind Westminster Presbyterian Church in Point Loma – was perfect, heightening the sense that you were seeing The Bard the way his work was meant to be seen.
• “Desert Rock Garden,” New Village Arts Theatre. To my mind the most compelling world-premiere play produced in San Diego County this year, “Desert Rock Garden” was written by Roy Sekigahama, whose parents were interned in a relocation camp during World War II. His one-act about the improbable friendship between an elderly man (Lane Nishikawa) and a young girl (Chloris Li) at the Topaz Relocation Center in Utah was thoughtful and uncompromising.
• “Iron,” Roustabouts Theatre Company. What an opportunity to experience one of San Diego’s greatest actors, Rosina Reynolds, in a tense, claustrophobic play worthy of all her skills. In Roustabouts’ production of Rona Munro’s play set inside a prison in Scotland, Reynolds (portraying Fay, a woman serving a life sentence) shares the stage with her real-life daughter Kate Rose Reynolds, playing Fay’s estranged daughter, Josie. It’s a potent combination.
• “Water by the Spoonful,” Cygnet Theatre. Not your prototypical addict’s story, “Water by the Spoonful” is multilayered and wrenching in both its storytelling and its characterizations. A steely Steven Lone is its central figure, Elliot, a tormented Iraq War veteran. In his sphere are his birth mother Odessa (Catalina Maynard), cousin Yaz (Melissa Ortiz) and chat-room denizens Bryan Barbarin, Emily Song Tyler and Christian Haines.
• “Bob Fosse’s Dancin’”, Old Globe Theatre. A world-premiere reimagination of the legendary Fosse’s original 1978 production, this tireless celebration of the art of dance was composed of a series of vignettes over two and a half hours, swiftly paced and often spectacular. A company of 20 performers dazzled on sets conceived by Robert Brill. The second act doesn’t match the impeccable first, but this felt like a big Broadway show, sparing nothing.
• “Cabaret,” Cygnet Theatre. Cygnet remounted its 2011 production of “Cabaret” for this 2022 summertime engagement, again with Sean Murray directing. Morphing from fever dream to nightmare, this “Cabaret” struck on a visceral level. Most affecting among the stellar cast that included Karson St. John, Megan Carmitchel and Will Bethmann were Linda Libby as a heartbreaking Fraulein Schneider and Eddie Yaroch as the Jewish shop owner who loves her.
• “Lempicka,” La Jolla Playhouse. This bio-musical about the dauntless Art Deco artist Tamara de Lempicka didn’t quite live up to the expectations I had for it beforehand, though the Playhouse’s production of the Carson Kreitzer/Matt Gould collaboration was dynamic and ambitious. Broadway veteran Eden Espinosa co-starred with high-tech projections and versatile set pieces, making for an imperfect but immersive trip into art history and history period.
• “Million Dollar Quartet,” Lamb’s Players Theatre. I don’t know how many times Lamb’s Players Theatre extended this rock ‘n’ roll songfest’s run, but there was a reason audiences kept coming. The jukebox musical about a Sun Records session that brought together Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins equaled irresistible fun. Each actor singing and playing was a treat, with Charles Evans Jr. standing out as the Man in Black.
• “Witnesses,” California Center for the Arts, Escondido Theatricals. The first original musical staged by CCAE Theatricals, a world premiere, was poignant and unforgettable. The witnesses were five Jewish teenagers whose secret diaries were the source of this important show with a book by Robert L. Freedman and stirring songs by multiple composers. This was the production that unquestionably announced the arrival of the 2-year-old CCAE Theatricals.
• I salute local theater critic Pat Launer, who is retiring after 40 years and some 5,000 reviews. She’s as much a part of the San Diego theater scene as are its producing companies. I’m proud to call Pat a colleague and even more proud to call her my friend.
• The closing, at least for now, of the 46-year-old San Diego Repertory Theatre was an immeasurable loss for theater here. That its suspension of operations announcement in June was followed by allegations of racism and misogyny made this all the sadder.
• Like so many in San Diego, both inside and outside the theater community, I mourn the passing of longtime critic and journalist Welton Jones. Not only was Welton a co-worker of mine at the San Diego Union-Tribune for many years, but later, after we’d both left the paper, it was he who assigned me my first theater review, for the San Diego Story.com site that he helped launch with Mark Burgess. This was the start of my life as a critic.
More important, Welton Jones was a delightful gentleman – a great storyteller, a fine journalist, a devoted historian. He also had a laugh like no one else’s and a generous heart. I miss him already.
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.