Men, women, even a goose: all part of New Village Arts' "The Ferryman." Photo by Daren Scott
Please. Don’t give me that “Theater’s dying” talk. As more than one purveyor of the craft has told me this past year when I float that doomsday scenario, theater’s been “dying” for years, yet here we are. If you want to reduce this noblest of performing arts to mere ticket sales, dollars and cents, and butts in the seats, go ahead and make your case.
I’m not going there. If 2023, arguably the first full post-pandemic year of live theater, is any indication, there is life … and bursting creativity … and inspiration … and, hovering over even the darkest of dramatic productions, joy onstage. That goes for behind the scenes and in the stalwart hearts of theater makers everywhere.
This means you too, San Diego. Especially you.
Selecting the top 10 productions of any year is daunting. So it is with 2023. For what it’s worth, I don’t pretend to be all seeing or all knowing. I do know what moved me, what entertained me, what stirred my imagination and rattled my conscience the most, and these are reflected on this list.
Theater is alive. Here is proof.
1. “The Ferryman,” New Village Arts Theatre. When I reviewed this incredibly ambitious production way back in January I wrote that it was practically Shakespearean in scope: Multiple intertwining plot lines. A cast of 21 including those portraying the 14 members of the Carney family of County Armagh (one of them a baby). Live animals. But “The Ferryman,” written by Jez Butterworth and directed by NVA’s Kristianne Kurner, was more than about scope. Its deep dive into the Irish troubles and family dynamics, and how they intersected in time, was captivating. Yeah, it was over three hours’ long with two intermissions. So what?
2. “August: Osage County,” Backyard Renaissance Theatre Company. Start with a deservedly Pulitzer-winning drama by Tracy Letts. Add as close to an all-star cast as any local production this year has enjoyed. Top it off with one of the supreme performances of ’23 – Deborah Gilmour Smyth as drug-addled family matriarch Violet Weston. Backyard Renaissance delivered a stellar season with this collective tour de force, the acidic comedy “Gods of Carnage” before it and the thoughtful “Proof” a month ago. Its “August” compared favorably to the production the Old Globe did back in 2011. Edge-of-your-seat theater in intimate confines.
3. “The Outsiders,” La Jolla Playhouse. I was not a fan of the 1981 Francis Ford Coppola film, and I hadn’t read the original novel by S.E. Hinton from the ‘60s, so I didn’t quite know what to expect when the Playhouse world-premiered this show with a book by Adam Rapp and music by the rootsy Jamestown Revival. What a wonderful surprise. “The Outsiders’” coming-of-age tale set in a dusty, bygone Tulsa was beautifully conceived, musically affecting and acted with no pretense at all by a young and talented cast. “The Outsiders” is set to open on Broadway in April. It earned that opportunity, no matter what happens in the Big Apple.
4. “Public Enemy,” New Fortune Theatre Company. This is the only production on this list that I saw twice. Even when I knew what was coming the second time around, I felt the anxious tension in my neck and shoulders that only a fiery adaptation (by David Harrower) of Ibsen’s “Enemy of the People” could elicit. Most of the credit for that goes to New Fortune Artistic Director Richard Baird, who starred as the well-meaning then betrayed Dr. Thomas Stockmann. Like Gilmour Smyth’s in “August: Osage County,” Baird’s performance was physically and emotionally, no-holds barred astounding.
5. “Birds of North America,” Moxie Theatre. Were I to name a Director of the Year it would be Lisa Berger, who was at the helm of this gentle and thoughtful production as well as Diversionary Theatre’s “The Glass Menagerie,” which I’ll discuss a bit later. Anna Ouyang Moench’s “Birds of North America” found a disconnected father and daughter (Mike Sears and Farah Dinga, both first rate) working out their issues about each other while birding. The wooded scenery backdrop by Robin Sanford Roberts and Matt Lescault-Wood’s extraordinary sound design transported audiences to a special, private place in nature and in the heart.
6. “El Huracan”, Cygnet Theatre. Performed in both English and Spanish, Cuban-American Charise Castro Smith’s metaphorical play articulated the desperation of loss: of a woman’s memory and, in the bigger picture, of hope. Hurricane Andrew in 1992 in Miami (to this day still the most destructive storm to ever hit Florida) was the backdrop for a family tale that was frequently heartbreaking even as it found joyous escapism in moments like a flashback of dancing to Sinatra at the Tropicana Club in Havana. Cygnet’s marvelous cast included Catalina Maynard, Sandra Ruiz, Amalia Alarcon Morris and Carla Navarro.
7. “Sunday in the Park with George,” CCAE Theatricals. At the California Center for the Arts, Escondido’s 400-seat Center Theater Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s daring bio-musical about pointillist painter Georges Seurat unfolded as it was intended to, with his painting “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of Grande Jatte” coming alive before your very eyes. Broadway veteran Will Blum was sublime as Seurat in the superior Act I, complemented by the versatile Emily Lopez. The technical wonderwork: from scenic designer George Gonzalez, costumer Janet Pitcher, projectionist Patrick Gates and lighting designer Michelle Miles.
8. “La Lucha,” La Jolla Playhouse. The year’s most immersive theater experience had to be this production created for rooms inside the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego Downtown by designer David Israel Reynoso and Optika Moderna. Inspired by the culture of lucha libre masked wrestlers, the hourlong “La Lucha” walking experience challenged the senses --and both cultural and gender expectations-- in startling ways. The luchadores masks worn by the actors and the meticulous rooms’ set pieces enhanced the dreamlike atmosphere inside the MCA building on Kettner as well as a palpable sense of love, death and magic.
9. “The Glass Menagerie,” Diversionary Theatre. Still playing (through Dec. 23) at the University Heights LGBTQIA+ theater, Tennessee Williams’ devastatingly sad family tale, much of it purported to be autobiographical, is a master class in inhabiting a character from Shana Wride, portraying the domineering, self-deceived matriarch Amanda Wingfield. Luke Harvey Jacobs is tortured Tom, the story’s narrator. According to director Lisa Berger, Diversionary’s is a collaborative interpretation of “Menagerie” in which Tom is closeted and daughter Laura (Julia Belanova) othered. If so, it seems very, very subtly executed.
10. “Lonely Planet,” OnStage Playhouse. If the future of Chula Vista’s OnStage Playhouse is unclear at this writing, it can be nonetheless duly proud of this sensitive staging of Steven Dietz’s AIDS-era play. Onetime OnStage artistic director Teri Brown directed her successor, James P. Darvas, and Salomon Maya as friends navigating the fear and loss of the epidemic in very different but intertwined fashion. In the small OnStage space, the raw emotions loosened inside what’s supposed to be a scarcely patronized map store (designed to fine detail by Patrick Mason) are all the more chilling.
Honorable mention: “Sumo,” La Jolla Playhouse, “Normal Heights,” Loud Fridge Theatre Group, “Gods of Carnage,” Backyard Renaissance Theatre Company, “Sharon,” Cygnet Theatre, “Head Over Heels,” Diversionary Theatre.
• A highlight of my theater year was attending a production at the famed Steppenwolf in Chicago. While “Another Marriage” by Kate Arrington was neither as funny nor as tender as it aspired to be, the Lincoln Heights theater itself boasts energy and a definite hipness quotient.
• Fond adieus and good jobs well done to Matt Morrow and Jennifer Eve Thorn who departed the theaters for which they were artistic director, Diversionary and Moxie respectively, this year.
• This year marked the debut of the San Diego Theatre Critics Circle’s first podcast, “Downstage,” which I co-hosted with colleague Alejandra Enciso-Dardashti. We had a lot of fun over the course of 12 episodes and enjoyed the presence of many enlightening guests. Looking forward to more “Downstage” in 2024, beginning early in the year with a preview of the SDCCC’s Craig Noel Awards (to be handed out on Feb. 12).
• The boorish behavior of Rep. Lauren Boebert at a Denver theater in September exemplified the ever-increasing audience misbehavior at live performances. While the congresswoman’s vaping and groping was an extreme manifestation of this, I witnessed in theaters many times this year audience members talking, looking at or lighting up their phones, wearing big floppy hats to block others’ views and in one case drunkenly babbling while a serious drama was unfolding onstage. Call me a scold if you will, but enough is enough.
• To end on a positive note, a salute to a couple of fledgling San Diego companies that distinguished themselves in ’23 and demonstrate promise for the years ahead: Loud Fridge Theatre Group and Blindspot Collective.
That’s it, everybody.
Sean Murray stars as Ebenezer Scrooge in "A Christmas Carol." Karli Cadel Photography
I’d pretty much made up my mind that I was going to skip all the holiday-related shows going on at San Diego theaters this season. But because I’m a sucker for Dickens and for Old Town at the yuletide I made it once again to Cygnet Theatre for its annual production of “A Christmas Carol.”
Sean Murray, who directs, is back for the second year as Ebenezer Scrooge. He looks more comfortable and less inhibited than he did in the role last year – very nice angels in the snow moment, Sean!
As every year, the standout in the Cygnet “Christmas Carol” cast is David McBean whose Marley’s Ghost and Ghost of Christmas Present never get old. I really credit McBean for annually putting so much into these portrayals and not skating through them.
The ’23 ensemble includes Megan Carmitchel (she of multi-talent), Jasmine January, Allen Lucky Weaver, Patrick McBride (a reliable Bob Cratchit among his other fine turns) and this year Eileen Bowman, though the night I attended understudy Julia Miranda Smith was playing parts including Mrs. Cratchit, Scrooge’s housekeeper and Mrs. Fezziwig.
I’ve seen this show so many times that the Billy Thompson musical score is as familiar to me as my December carols playlist. Not every song is a stocking stuffer, but Cygnet’s ensemble is a vocally gifted one and anyway it’s all in good fun.
Those of you who’ve seen this production before know that it’s preceded by caroling and corny jokes from the costume-clad cast members, which adds to the merrymaking.
The cast is as always very well supported by those behind the scenes at Cygnet: music director/accompanist Patrick Marion, costume designer Jeanne Reith and choreographer Katie Banville to name just three. Everyone who brings off this production is in the spirit in Old Town, making this “Christmas Carol” a reliable and cheery break from shopping, gift-wrapping or putting up with those wearing-out-their-welcome relatives.
“A Christmas Carol” runs through Dec. 30 at Cygnet Theatre in Old Town.
Francis Gercke and Liliana Talwatte in "Proof." Photo by Daren Scott
Mathematics, we’re told in David Auburn’s “Proof,” are elegant.
Human beings are messy -- really messy in the case of one Chicago family in which a brilliant mathematician, Robert, descended into mental illness, leaving his mathematically prodigious younger daughter Catherine feeling on the razor’s edge of the same fate.
Backyard Renaissance Theatre Company is winding up an impressive Season 8 that has included a howling production of Yamina Reza’s “God of Carnage” and a superb “August: Osage County” by Tracy Letts with Auburn’s insular play which garnered both a Pulitzer Prize for Drama and a Tony Award more than 20 years ago.
Interestingly, when “Proof” made its San Diego debut in 2003 at the San Diego Repertory Theatre with Danica McKellar starring, the part of Hal, a smart but awkward former student of Catherine’s father, was played by Francis Gercke. Now an older Gercke, a co-founder of Backyard Renaissance (with Jessica John and Anthony Methvin, who directs this current production of “Proof”), is portraying Robert. Under Methvin’s direction, Gercke delivers one of the richest performances I’ve seen from him. More on this soon.
This is the first time I’ve ever seen “Proof.” For me, the plum is that I couldn’t care less about anything mathematical, nor do I understand the math bandied about in the story, yet the play’s nervous energy is consistent, and I definitely cared about the destiny of its protagonist, Catherine (Liliana Talwatte).
All families are complicated – that’s a universal truth, or have you already forgotten your Thanksgiving weekend? Catherine not only confronts in both flashbacks and real time her relationship with her father, but the "well meaning" pushiness of her older sister Claire (a stalwart Wendy Maples) and the exasperating presence of young Hal (William Huffaker).
Talwatte, who at times in designer Curtis Mueller’s lighting resembles Audrey Hepburn, conveys with mere glances or lingering stares so much of the inner conflict Catherine is suffering. And when she erupts, something else that seems to be a family characteristic, the pain or resolve behind it can be deeply felt on the elevated backyard patio stage by Yi-Chien Lee.
“Proof’s” narrative flashpoint is the discovery by Hal – one directed to him by a furtive Catherine – of a mathematical proof about prime numbers that could revolutionize the field. But was it written by Robert in between manic episodes or by, as she claims, Catherine herself, who everyone BUT her father underestimated?
“Proof” could have been titled “Doubt.” That title wouldn’t be taken until 2004, for John Patrick Shanley’s own Pulitzer-winning play.
Besides Talwatte’s magnetic turn as Catherine, there is that aforementioned performance from Gercke. It’s challenging to believably portray mental illness onstage without venturing over the top. In his two flashback sequences Gercke allows the anxiety, the disorientation and eventually the manic deterioration to build. Yet it’s one gentle, lucid monologue in which Robert reflects upon the cloistered comfort of academia’s world of contemplation and self-discovery, that stands out even more.
Huffaker’s admittedly nerdy Hal clambers around the stage and seems ever about to topple over from either nervous exuberance or desperation. It’s tough to imagine why even a loner like Catherine would be remotely drawn to him on more than a superficial level. But there it is.
The comparative quiet of the first act gives way to timely blow-ups in the second; somehow the two parts of the whole coalesce. Director Methvin to his credit has given his cast room to explore and indulge Auburn’s complex characters.
Ultimately, prime numbers mean nothing to me. Family dynamics, fraught with turmoil as they can be, indeed do. That should prove true for anyone who gives this play time to sink in and ferment.
“Proof” runs through Dec. 9 at the Tenth Avenue Arts Center downtown.
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.