Arts Listings

Looking Back on Year, Decade in Theater

By Ken Bullock, Special to the Planet
Thursday January 07, 2010 - 08:44:00 AM

At the end of the season, it’s a wry task to talk about what happened last year in theater, something that progresses by seasons more than by calendar years, in a kind of reverse order, like everything on stage seems to be: where life is turned upside down, inside out—so we can look (and laugh or cry) at it. 

The theater season starts every year like the old agrarian calendar once did, with the end of summer, and in older cultures, the connection’s still clear. In South and Southeast Asia, theater troupes, like Kathakali actors in Kerala, South India, and shadow puppeteers in Indonesia, perform all night at the lunar harvest festivals that used to usher in the New Year everywhere in autumn. 

And this year, a whole decade closes for me ... Ten years ago, after a phone call out of the blue from the late and much lamented Al Burgin of the Commuter Times, a North Bay weekly that goes out on the ferry every Friday, I started writing regular theater reviews. And five years ago this past season, I began working for The Planet to review the swatch of shoreline theater from Alameda to Richmond. 

Theater companies usually program by season, but bigger patterns start to emerge for a whole scene over a decade. So in looking back, I’ll zig-zag between a few specifics and some generalities, eschewing nostalgia as I veer between what I’ve seen over the past year and in the last decade. 

The salient fact of the past decade in theater is the profusion of it in the Bay Area. Twenty-five years ago, about the time the Bay Area Theater Critics Circle was founded, there were maybe 75 to 100 troupes in the greater Bay Area, according to the estimates of some of its original Critics Circle members. Over most of the past 10 years, Theatre Bay Area has estimated closer to 400 or 500. And this with the radical decline of public funding for the arts that rendered the once-powerful California Arts Council, for example, into a virtually ceremonial office. 

A primary reason for the continuance of so many companies and projects is cooperation and mutual assistance. Look closely at any theater program, read the acknowledgments and thanks.  

This, and one of the few real examples of a trickle-down effect, from the influx of new—and the return of former—members of the theater community, a small renaissance in theater education and community theater of genuine quality have contributed to the happier side of a new parochialism, a local, neighborly sense of theater expressing its own energies can be. Bay Area theater includes longtime community stages like the Actors Ensemble of Berkeley at Live Oak Theater, Masquers Playhouse in Pt. Richmond, Alameda’s Altarena Playhouse or Contra Costa Civic Theatre in El Cerrito, alongside the many collaborative ventures of the Shotgun Players and the training projects for young people that stage shows, like Youth Musical Theater Company or Berkeley Playhouse, which also features an adult company playing for families, at the Julia Morgan Center.  

But parochialism has its down side: self-satisfaction. The belief that our local scene represents the apex, that it’s equal to anything in theater anywhere and has surpassed even itself. There’s a tendency to overlook both new and longterm innovators, local and visiting, and to forget past homegrown achievements and periods of greater exchange with other styles of performance, from other regions and cultures. 

If there’s a self-congratulatory acceptance of mediocrity (practically a definition of provincialism), regional repertory theaters are in great part to blame, and not just those locally. In many ways, this national project of some four or five decades, that was supposed to link local nonprofit professional companies in order to boost the level of artistry, has fallen into the doldrums of institutionalism. 

The “product” often seems more at home on a TV screen or in commercial film, where many professional playwrights really earn their bread. Often trumpeting the latest “promising” work, which reeks of the worst of academic or entertainment industry methods of development, in lieu of developing and staging work of many local and national talents or translating and adapting foreign language works of quality.  

And equally heralded revivals of classics are too often dramaturgy-proof.  

In other words, there’s a failure of collaboration with both the makers and consumers of art, an original plank of the regional rep mission. 

The problems of running a nonprofit regional theater are considerable, but the solution isn’t the kind of artistic hedging and underestimating of the audience that’s become common.  

The most exceptional theatrical event of last year, Druid Ireland’s intense staging of Enda Walsh’s deliberately slippery The Walworth Farce, directed by Mikel Murfi, at Zellerbach Playhouse, was met with enthusiasm by audiences willing to take on its challenges, some returning to comment on its difficulty—and of their admiration. Druid had, the previous year, brilliantly staged John Synge’s great Playboy of the Western World, directed by company co-founder Garry Hynes, on the Roda Stage at Berkeley Rep with a virtuosic complexity that’s rarely seen here anymore. 

Griping aside, what I remember best of the past decade are the best shows by companies big and small, including: 

• The Rep commissioning and staging Itamar Moses’ Yellow Jackets, a panoramic play of racial scandal at Berkeley High;  

• Sue Trigg’s extraordinary and surprising staging of Death of a Salesman at Altarena;  

• The offbeat innovatory work of Maya Gurantz’s Ten Red Hen, like The 99-Cent Miss Saigon and Clown Bible;  

• TheatreInSearch’s Gilgamesh at Ashby Stage; 

• Darvag’s premiere, in collaboration with Shotgun, of Bahram Beyzaie’s fascinating The Death of Yazgerd; 

• Nathan the Wise and Sergeant Musgrave’s Dance by TheatreFIRST;  

• CalShake’s Lear, set in the Roaring ’20s;  

• Oleg Liptsin performance of A Propos of the Wet Snow, from Dostoyevsky; 

• any number of pieces by Central Works;  

• the best of Virago;  

• works by Miller, Ibsen, Pinter, Mamet at the Aurora;  

• Bernard Shaw at Shotgun 

• Rita Moreno in The Glass Menagerie at The Rep 

• moments of dark hilarity in the Martin McDonagh plays staged there ...  

• physical theater by mugwumpin and foolsFURY ... 

• And last year, Ragged Wing Ensemble, paring down to a trio to troupe through So Many Ways to Kill a Man, inspired by Aeschylus;  

• a new Shadowlight play from Octavio Solis stories by Larry Reed;  

• inspired staged readings of John O’Keefe’s The Bronte Cycle by Subterranean Shakespeare and of James Joyce by Wilde Irish;  

• Golden Thread’s innovative Skype play, The Review, performed simultaneously in Cairo and the Bay Area on the internet ... 

The year and the decade are over, but the list could go on.