BIG HITS 'The Whale' stood out for its heartbreaking drama and unexpected resolution.
It's that time again. Each December, as the year draws to a close, I always take a moment to sort through the numerous tickets stubs I've saved from the 80-something shows I've seen over the previous 12 months.
Carefully, I recall each show, assembling the torn tickets in order, with my 10 favorites on top—my top 10 torn tickets. While many of these could arguably be called the best of they year, my choices are a highly personal assortment, the shows that I most enjoyed experiencing, the plays I couldn't stop talking about, the ones I often wished I could go back in a time machine and watch all over again.
As usual, some very good shows did not make this list. Spreckels Theater Co.'s delightful Annie Get Your Gun and its moving Book of Matthew, for example, along with Cinnabar's luminous Marriage of Figaro, the Imaginists' highly innovative War Circus and Marin Theater Company's eye-popping Lasso of Truth. I liked those shows. A lot. I just liked these other 10 a little bit more.
And with that, here are my personal top 10 torn tickets of 2014.
1. 'Of Mice and Men' (Cinnabar Theatre)
"Tell me again about the rabbits, George." Propelled by heart-wrenching performances from Samson Hood (the iconic man-child Lenny) and Keith Baker (George, the patron saint of difficult choices), John Steinbeck's aching American masterpiece was resurrected with grace, verve and raw emotional poetry by director Sheri Lee Miller. Shepherding a strong cast of local character actors, with emphasis on the gritty humanity that defines and unites Steinbeck's broken men and desperate dreamers, this lyrical Cinnabar production opened in March, and nothing that I saw since could unseat it as my favorite show of the year.
2. 'The Whale' (Marin Theatre Co.)
Samuel D. Hunter's scathingly humane tale of an obese shut-in's clumsy attempt to connect with his angry, estranged daughter was unlike any other play about father-child relationships I've ever seen. As directed by Jasson Minadakis, with an astonishing performance by Nicholas Pelczar, this show transcended the conspicuous trappings of Pelczar's fat suit, refusing to present typical theatrical resolutions, breaking our hearts as we watched one very large heart break before our stunned and freshly opened eyes.
3. 'Next to Normal' (Novato Theater Co.)
A searing rock musical about manic-depression and shock therapy, this one is so far beyond the capabilities of most community theater companies, there is no way it should have worked. And yet it did, rocked hard by a compassionate, power-voiced cast who were nothing short of electrifying, helmed with passion and panache by director Kim Bromley. It was crazy good.
4. 'Return to the Forbidden Planet' (Novato Theater Co.)
Shakespeare + outer space + classic rock tunes + sexy robots on roller skates = one loony-tunes delight of a mashup musical.
5. 'Other Desert Cities' (Main Stage West)
Jon Robin Baitz's 2012 Tony nominee (and Pulitzer Prize short-lister) was every theater company's favorite in 2014. This year, I saw three productions of this sly and shattering comedy-drama in the North Bay alone, including a very good one at Pegasus Theater. My favorite was Main Stage West's vibrant staging. With masterful direction by Beth Craven, a sensational ensemble of local veterans (John Craven, Laura Jorgenson, Sheri Lee Miller) and relative newcomers (Sharia Pierce, Sam Coughlin) found the right balance in Baitz's tricky tale of ancient family secrets, luring us with laughter before smacking us with truth.
6. 'An Ideal Husband' (Marin Shakespeare Co.)
Nearly 120 years after its creation, Oscar Wilde's sneaky examination of political power and those who would use secrets as leverage against the decent politician still stands as a broad comedy on the surface, but as directed by Robert Currier (and with a spot-on cast including Nick Sholley, Cat Thompson, Darren Bridgett and Marcia Pizzo), it played out as an edge-of-seat thriller, with one supremely satisfying conclusion.
7. 'Journey's End' (Ross Valley Players)
The alternating boredom and terror of war, as sharply illustrated in R. C. Sherriff's outstanding WWI trench drama, is at its most excruciating when nothing at all is happening. It's the experience of waiting underground for the next battle, and the way soldiers fill the spaces between, that made RVP's season opener so gripping, tense, funny and devastating. With a fine ensemble led by David Yen, Steven Dietz and Tom Hudgeons, director James Dunn expertly paced his claustrophobic tale, a rare story of action in which little ever happens until suddenly, and violently, it does.
8. 'Mother Jones in Heaven' (Main Stage West)
Irish-American activist Mary Harris Jones may have been the subject of Si Kahn's skillful musical monologue, but make no mistake: this was Mary Gannon Graham's show. Set in Heaven's tiniest whiskey bar, Kahn's affecting biographical theater piece, directed with laser-focused energy by Beth Craven, was packed with historical details of Jones' life as a voice of justice, and punctuated with great songs, but it was Graham's twinkly, transcendent, angry, loving, raw and nakedly brilliant performance—along with her emotionally engaging singing voice—that coaxed Mother Jones' spirit and legacy back to sweet, breathtaking life.
9. 'The Beauty Queen of Leenane' and 'Lonesome West' (6th Street Playhouse)
Two plays by Martin McDonagh—both set in the same Irish village, with overlapping characters and references—were presented in repertory at 6th Street. Essentially one story told in two parts, The Beauty Queen of Leenane (directed by Bronwen Shears) and Lonesome West (directed by Chris Ginesi) were memorably off-the-wall, violent, profane, hilarious and riveting.
10. 'T.I.C. (Trenchcoat in Common)' (Main Stage West)
It wasn't the classiest or most coherent play of the year, but Peter Sinn Nachtrieb's outrageous comedy thriller was possibly the strangest. Equal parts madness, mayhem and mystery—with one particularly well-timed instance of full frontal nudity—Nachtrieb's unpredictable fantasia on boredom, bombings and teenage angst was directed by Sheri Lee Miller, and showcased Ivy Rose Miller as the only sane person in an apartment complex crammed with oddballs.