The Year in Bay Area Theater 2010

In my first full year of writing this stage column, I've encountered my share of bad Shakespeare, worse Chekhov, and musicals that should've stayed unwritten and unsung. But here I want to focus on the highlights of the year in theater — the people and plays I remember much more vividly than those painful, awkward evenings of substandard live entertainment. Just be warned that as lists go, this one is pretty eccentric.

Best Use of Space
Hamlet on Alcatraz (We Players)
I spent all year looking at beautifully designed sets on some of the area's most handsome stages, but nothing really matched the thrill of watching Shakespeare's melancholy Dane grapple with the harsh landscape of Alcatraz. We Players, a San Francisco-based troupe under the artistic direction of Ava Roy, found ingenious ways for the setting to inform the text, giving us a very good Hamlet by any standard — all the more impressive when you consider the ridiculous logistics required to pull this show off.

Most Entertaining Liberal Guilt Trip
This Is All I Need (Mugwumpin)
San Francisco theater offers no shortage of plays designed to make liberals feel terrible about themselves. Very rarely are those plays any good, but Mugwumpin's This Is All I Need proved a notable exception — a high-concept performance piece playfully eviscerating our tendency to accumulate unnecessary stuff. Who knew that a critique of mindless consumerism could feel so fresh or be so entertaining?

Most Improved with the Passage of Time
God's Ear (Shotgun Players)
When I saw God's Ear at Shotgun in June, I wrote an admiring review, but I couldn't quite embrace the play — it simply left me cold. Jenny Schwartz' surreal, surprisingly hilarious show about parents grieving for a dead child is one of the most challenging pieces I saw this year, and it gets better the more I think about it. This is the kind of play that takes you by surprise, leaves you a bit confounded, and proves impossible to shake.

Most Inventive Staging
Rhino (Boxcar Theatre)
The shows at Boxcar don't always work as drama, but they're usually a delight to look at. No small company in San Francisco mounts such visually impressive productions on such a consistent basis. My favorite this year was Rhino, cleverly adapted by Evren Odcikin from Eugène Ionesco's Rhinocéros. In Odcikin's staging, the audience stood alongside the actors, everyone shifting position as the action migrated from one spotlight to the next. The result was unusually intimate and quite beautiful — probably the most intense theatrical experience I had this year.

Most Deserving of Hype
In the Red and Brown Water (Marin Theatre Company)
This fall, the local hype machine was working overtime to promote Tarell Alvin McCraney's The Brother/Sister Plays, the much-anticipated trilogy produced in tandem by three of the Bay Area's most respected theaters. The result was, predictably, a bit of a mixed bag. But In the Red and Brown Water — the first installment of the trilogy, directed by Ryan Rilette in a stellar production at Marin Theatre Company — was as deeply satisfying as anything I saw in 2010.

Best Kids' Show
Lemony Snicket's The Composer Is Dead (Berkeley Rep)
I can't claim to enjoy children's theatre in general. So much of it is condescending and goofy-cute that it's liable to alienate intelligent kids. But every once in a while, a show comes along that is clever and funny enough to make the phrase "children's theater" seem totally inadequate. Lemony Snicket's The Composer Is Dead, gorgeously staged as a holiday offering at Berkeley Rep, is just about the most fun I've had at the theater all year. It plays through Jan. 15, so catch it while you can — whether you have kids or not.

Best Ensemble Drama
In the Wake (Berkeley Rep)
Lisa Kron's long-winded, blazingly articulate play was a bit frustrating to watch, but remains the most impressive new drama I saw in 2010. (I clearly wasn't the only one who was impressed: After premiering at Berkeley Rep in May, the show made its off-Broadway debut at New York's Public Theater in November.) The story concerns a group of New York liberals grappling with the political and cultural upheavals that took place during George W. Bush's presidency. I've rarely encountered the kind of sophistication and wit found in almost every line of Kron's dazzling dialogue; if only that same level of sophistication could be applied to the show's too-obvious monologues, we'd have a regular masterpiece on our hands.

Best Ensemble Comedy
Learn to Be Latina (Impact Theatre)
The term "explosively funny" sounds just about right for Enrique Urueta's satire — for me, the many laughs came in violent bursts of shock and delight. The story of a Lebanese pop star who poses as Latina in order to sell more records, Urueta's play offers an almost indecent number of quotable lines and marks the emergence of a crazy-impressive comic talent.

Best Play of 2010
The Real Americans (The Marsh)
This nuanced, insightful look at middle America is an outstanding showcase for writer, performer, and overall comic genius Dan Hoyle. It's also just about the finest piece of political theater I've ever seen. The play is currently suspended while Hoyle recovers from an injury, but should pick up again in 2011. Don't even consider missing it.

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