Thanks for The Memories

Ten theater experiences that will last beyond 2005.

It was, all in all, a pretty good year for Bay area theater. American Stage continued to bring us shows of the highest quality, Stageworks outdid itself with one important play after the next, Jobsite Theater became ever more essential to the local scene, and the more diminutive companies — Acorn, Hat Trick, Alley Cat, Gypsy, Salerno and Fresh! Live! Theatre — insisted on proving that Small can be Beautiful. There was also the good news that Acorn's found a — possibly — permanent home at Centro Ybor. And American Stage's decision to take Shakespeare out of the Park and play it indoors could still turn out to be a boon for area Bardolaters (now we might see something besides the comedies). As for first-class productions, here's the Top 10. In years to come, we'll still be remembering:

1. The Chairs. Ionesco's modernist classic is about the impossibility of theater in a world where speaker and listener can't connect. In Stageworks/Gorilla Theatre's brilliant production, this nihilistic view of art was painstakingly communicated. As the sponsors of a supposedly momentous oration, Richard Coppinger and Midge Mamatas couldn't have been better; and as a Romantic Artist/Actor who can only grunt nonsensically, Adam Belvo was aptly speechless. Anna Brennen's direction showed a fine sense of detail, and R. T. Williams' cubist set might have been conceived by Picasso.

2. Proof. David Auburn's play is about Catherine, the daughter of a great but deranged mathematician. Is she a genius or a liar? Or is she simply, like her father, mentally ill? In the luminous American Stage production, four gifted performers — Katherine Tanner as Catherine, Brian Shea as graduate student Hal, Julie Rowe as Catherine's prim sister and Tom Nowicki as her tragic father — held our attention in a vise. Kate Warner's fine direction favored character over plot, and Amy J. Cianci's costumes were just right for the unfashionable academics. But best of all was Tanner's iridescent performance.

3. The Complete History of America (abridged). This had to be the most uproarious comedy of the year. As presented by deliriously funny Jobsite Theater actors David Jenkins, Jason Vaughan Evans and Shawn Paonessa, this History had everything: a silly argument between Amerigo Vespucci and his wife, the word "American" rearranged into "I Can Ream," and a witch-hunting Salem pastor reminding us to "hunt the good hunt." Then everyone got high on "Monticello Gold"; the name "Spiro Agnew" was reordered into "Grow A Penis"; and Great American Women Trading Cards were introduced and slandered ("Collect all three"). If you weren't laughing, you had better check your pulse. Did I mention the Boston cream pie?

4. The Taming of the Shrew. In a feminist age, Taming's protagonist can seem an assertive woman before her time. But director Todd Olson carefully avoided our indignation by presenting Kate (Karen Marie Garcia) as a dangerous wild animal, a rampaging panther that clawed, kicked and bit. If anyone (for example, Jeremy Childs' Petruchio) was crazy enough to want to go to bed with her, well, good luck and better count your body parts in the morning. We know now that this Taming will go down in local history as the last Shakespeare in the Park presented by American Stage. Thanks to Olson and a fine cast, the institution said its goodbye with a flourish.

5. Collected Stories. Donald Margulies' characteristically intelligent drama is about a novelist, Ruth Steiner (Mimi Rice), who accepts an aspiring young writer, Lisa Morrison (Katherine Michelle Tanner), as her protégée. In six carefully crafted scenes, Lisa evolves from a clumsy sycophant into a confident literary phenomenon. At the same time, Ruth changes from a triumphantly bad-mannered celebrity to a sickly near-fossil who may or may not have been cruelly exploited by her apprentice. Margulies' meditation on the lit'ry life, on mentorship and ambition was beautifully directed by Stageworks' Anna Brennen and lovingly designed by R. T. Williams.

6. Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune. Jobsite Theater's stunning version of Terrence McNally's play showed us that real love is possible even among the battered men and women of our merciless cities. The key element here was dazzling acting: Paul J. Potenza as Johnny was a manic motormouth, and Ami Sallee Corley as Frankie was tough yet insecure. On Brian Smallheer's set of a one-room New York apartment, Potenza and Corley enacted a dangerous mating dance, banging into the walls and each other with every wrong move. McNally's play isn't very deep, but the Jobsite version found everything in it of importance.

7. Satchmo. Claude McNeal's tribute to the great Louis Armstrong was the most inspiring production of the theater year. Bill White was surely Armstrong incarnate: the gravelly voice, the irrepressible grin, the exuberant delight in "Sweet Georgia Brown" and "What a Wonderful World" — White had it all. The show's three other singers — Jonathan Harrison, Sharon Scott and Yolanda Williams — were charming and skillful, and McNeal's script, in which Armstrong shares his memoirs with his manager Joe Glaser (Harrison), helped us understand — somewhat — the man behind the music. Add White's joyous performances on trumpet backed by a top-notch six-man band, and you had the year's best musical, brought cheerfully to life at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center. Oh... yeah.

8. I Am My Own Wife. Doug Wright's celebrated play is about Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, a German transvestite who somehow survived under the Nazis and the Communists. But Wife does more than pay tribute to von Mahlsdorf's endurance; it also asks if she collaborated with the East German secret police. Gay icon or contemptible informer? The talented Mark Chambers played 30 or so parts in pursuit of the answer. And if, at the end, the question remained unanswered, still the journey, and the production at American Stage, was fascinating.

9. Bash. Neil LaBute's evening of one-acts is a shocking look at violence and superstition. As presented by Hat Trick Theatre, it was also the discovery of the year, a low-budget, nearly setless show that at its best had the terrible resonance of Greek tragedy. The most intense of the one-acts was the last, Medea Redux, about a 13-year-old girl whose junior high school teacher is trying to seduce her. But Iphigenia in Orem, about a man whose baby daughter has died, was almost as harrowing, and A Gaggle of Saints, if not quite so original, made a powerful statement about our capacity for hatred. Most important, the show demonstrated that even a company as small as Hat Trick can become essential — if only it will choose to produce important scripts.

10. The True History of Coca-Cola in Mexico. Authors Patrick Scott and Aldo Velasco want us to know that Mexico is overwhelmed by American culture. So they concocted a rough-and-ready satire that takes on Mexican history and poverty, American industry, the American tourist trade and even well meaning but crass American liberals. As presented by Tampa's Stageworks, the show was funny and poignant and oddly illuminating. Jack Holloway and Jackie Rivera played everything from conquistadors to Mexican politicians to the actors in a Spanish-language telenovela. As history it was much too quick, but as theater it was delicious. Muchas gracias.

And that's 2005. Have a superb 2006. And may all your dramas be romantic comedies.

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