Every New Year's, regular as clockwork, I do it again.
I empty out my box of torn ticket stubs from the previous year of theater-going. I spread them out all over the floor. And using those bits and pieces of pasteboard scraps, I mentally revisit all of the plays I've seen over the previous 12 months.
Then I choose my favorites.
As always, my favorites are fairly subjective, highly personal choices, and do not necessarily constitute the best shows I've experienced. That's an important distinction. There are plays that, though less than perfect, I look back on with great fondness and pleasure, while others, shows that might have been flawlessly executed, dropped out of my head the minute I filed my review.
Simply put, my favorite plays are those which, months down the line, I find myself wishing I could see all over again. Here they are, my North Bay top 10 torn tickets of 2011.
1. 'Seven Guitars' (Marin Theatre Company ) Gracefully directed by Kent Gash, August Wilson's luxurious, lived-in drama begins with the funeral of a once-promising musician, then skips back in time to show the events leading up to his death. The acting was so good, so alive, so fresh with detail and grit that it was easy to forget we were watching actors at all. Vibrantly and powerful written, this Seven Guitars sprung to live with the kind of force and elegance that theater should always strive for yet so rarely achieves.
2. 'Bug' (Narrow Way Stage Company) When a lonely waitress with devastating emotional scars meets a potentially delusional man (certain he's the subject of a horrific government experiment), it makes for the weirdest, boldest love story of the year. Directed by Lennie Dean with verve and stunning compassion, and performed by a cast willing to bare their souls (and everything else), the show's raw energy and sheer outrageousness made it absolutely unforgettable.
3. 'The Caretaker' (Imaginists and Ensemble theater collectives) Harold Pinter's patented semi-absurdist drama, set in a cluttered room crammed with debris, featured three supremely odd and damaged men, bouncing up against each other. Expertly directed, with a pair of towering performances, this magnificent show still lingers in the mind.
4. 'Woody Guthrie's American Song' (Cinnabar Theater) Powered by great songs, all movingly rendered, this rich review of Guthrie's musical skill was poetic, hypnotic and full of emotional power.
5. 'How I Learned to Drive' (SSU) Paula Vogel's stunningly composed tale of a teenage girl's complicated coming of age caused a sensation, and huge demand for tickets. With Danielle Cain's sensitive direction and a fine, fearless cast, this one—both disturbing and uplifting—was worth the wait for seats.
6. 'Crimes of the Heart' (Cinnabar Theater) An appealing cast and some fine direction by Sheri Lee Miller coaxed huge laughs and a few tears from Beth Henley's edgy-wacky Southern gothic comedy drama about a trio of sisters with some very big issues.
7. 'Shirley Valentine' (Cinnabar Theater) Mary Gannon Graham's luminous, full-throttle performance in Willy Russell's beloved one-woman show is now the stuff of local theater legend. This roller-coaster remounting, directed by John Shillington, showed why.
8. 'Intimate Apparel' (Sixth Street Playhouse) Fluidly staged by director Bronwen Shears, this tale of a shy seamstress taking a stab at love was lovingly crafted and performed with emotional fire and compassionate beauty.
9. 'Cyrano' (Sonoma County Repertory Theater) The Rep's bittersweet swan song (shutting down immediately after) was an elegant, cleverly done three-actor reinvention of the classic romantic tragedy. Directed by Jennifer King, this was a lovely and memorable way to say goodbye to a treasured Sonoma County institution.
10. 'Stalag 17' (RIOT Theater) Tense and entertaining, this semi-immersive revival of the classic WWII POW drama, tightly directed by Denise Elia, put audiences in the action from the moment they ducked under the clothesline to enter the tastily claustrophobic set. Solid acting made this one a memorable descent into hell.