Stage 1996

Five notable productions

Hurray and happy new year, and welcome to my choices for "Favorite Five of '96." The productions included all qualified as excellent, heart-stopping, jaw-dropping theater. Listed alphabetically, they are: All in the Timing (Marin Theater Company), Heartbreak House (Berkeley Repertory Theater), R&J (Art Street Theater), Shylock on Valencia Street (Signal Theater Company), and Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 (Berkeley Repertory Theater).

Runners-up: A Kind of Alaska (Aurora Theater Company), Hurricane/Mauvais Temps (Berkeley Repertory Theater), Radio Mambo (Culture Clash), Shlemiel the First (American Conservatory Theater), Tom Jones (Rough and Tumble).

All in the Timing As directed by Albert Takazauckas, this Marin Theater Company production of David Ives' one-acts was virtually flawless. A splendid company of local actors -- Nancy Carlin, James Carpenter, Hector Correa, and Lucinda Hitchcock Cone -- took Ives' fabulously offbeat comedies and served them up like a banquet of chocolate truffles. It was deliciousness on top of delight -- smartly paced, smoothly delivered, and explosively funny. A side note: At the matinee I attended, a pair of elderly ladies sat bewildered and stone-faced through scene after scene. Finally one turned to the other and whispered loudly, "Well, I guess you're just supposed to enjoy it." And they did. Thanks, MTC, so did I.

Heartbreak House I confess to finding G.B. Shaw a bit long-winded as a dramatist but am still awed by Berkeley Rep's production (staged with unshakable conviction by outgoing Artistic Director Sharon Ott) of his enormous, sweeping masterpiece. Heartbreak House grapples with the cataclysmic collision of eras prior to World War I in England, culminating in the destruction of civilization as Shaw knew it. Ott and her splendid company savored each comic moment and tragic nuance and explored the play's full range and scope. All the performers were outstanding, yet I find myself haunted by Ken Ruta as the elderly Capt. Shotover, Shaw's stand-in for King Lear.

R&J Mark Jackson's brilliant deconstruction of Romeo and Juliet (produced for the S.F. Fringe Festival by Art Street Theater) played on the audience's presumed knowledge of Shakespeare's text. By fragmenting speeches that are pop-music-familiar, and scattering them among several characters, Jackson (who directed and adapted) tilted reality into an otherworldly dream state and created a vigorously fresh, yet poignantly evocative world for the doomed teen-age lovers. In cutting the original to the bone, Art Street delivered the famous tragedy in about one hour, as full and complete as any of the more traditional versions I've seen. And, on the whole, vastly more entertaining.

Shylock on Valencia Street Another brilliant re-examination of Shakespeare, this time the treacherous Merchant of Venice, notable for its harrowing anti-Semitism. Signal Theater Company, under the direction of Val Hendrickson, re-imagined the play in Gold Rush-era San Francisco, thus allowing a heady recklessness to permeate this tale of love and vengeance. Hendrickson then went one step further and set the bulk of the action in a saloon frequented by the play's heroes -- Antonio, the merchant, and his needy friend Bassanio (in memorable performances by Phil Stockton and Steven Patterson, respectively). Both seemed minimally but continually drunk, a creative decision that solved one of Merchant's biggest stumbling blocks: the (usually unacknowledged) matter of severely impaired judgment on virtually everyone's part. This generalized inebriation effectively reduced the play's anti-Semitic dialogue to the level of slightly obscene barroom banter, thus managing to contextualize it without glamorizing or excusing it. STC was twice blessed in having the superb John Robb as Shylock.

Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 Anna Deavere Smith's heart-clutching solo-performance piece may turn out to be the definitive document of those troubled days following the not-guilty verdict in the trial of the police officers who beat motorist Rodney King. As presented by Berkeley Rep's Parallel Season and directed by Sharon Ott, this version of Twilight was a revision of the show that played on Broadway in '94. New material added complexity along with -- unfortunately -- length, but did not blunt the effect of seeing so many personalities filtered through the equalizing vision of a single performer of genius.

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