Although no year in which the Mark Taper Forum is at least temporarily shuttered and the Kirk Douglas Theatre’s programming is reduced can be said to be an entirely positive year for Los Angeles theater, 2023 made a surprisingly strong showing for superb productions. It was an enthralling mix of new plays and compelling revivals, filled with award-worthy performances, in which smaller venues provided the bulk of the best work. And so, in no particular order of ranking, here are my ten favorite shows I saw this past year.
Above image – Evangeline Edwards and Samuel Garnett, photo by John Perrin Flynn.
THE USUAL SUSPECT –
The perennially most produced playwright in English-speaking theater, William Shakespeare, continued his four-century-plus dominance with a couple of excellent productions.
The first, Much Ado About Nothing at A Noise Within, was an uncommonly delightful confection brought to vivid life via Guillermo Cienfuegos’s smart, energetic direction and a fantastic ensemble. This was a show to bring anyone who doesn’t think Shakespeare is enjoyable to convert them to understanding how fun the Bard can be. Highlighted by a couple of terrific lead performances from Joshua Bitton and Erika Soto, Nothing was very much something. It’s also worth mentioning that Cienfuegos directed another play on this list – this very talented man had a heck of a year.
The second in this category is Measure Still for Measure at Boston Court Pasadena, writer/director Jessica Kubzansky’s sharp reflection on Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, an immersive production that was one of the most structurally and intellectually ambitious shows I saw this year. The concept of the piece is that a group of modern actors are rehearsing to do a production of Measure, and the circumstances of that turn out to be thematically similar to the concerns of the classic play. One of the great pleasures of this production was all the backstage detail about how theatre productions are actually put together, from the artistic struggles to really understand the piece they’re working on to the petty but more amusing interpersonal interactions.
IT’S ALIVE! (REVIVALS) –
The original version of Anna Deavere Smith’s Twilight, Los Angeles, 1992 was a one-woman show that had its world premiere at the Taper almost thirty years ago in 1994. Thus it was quite appropriate that Smith’s revision of the piece, devised for a five-actor ensemble, would play at the Taper as well. Whereas Smith’s first production was a showcase for her writing and acting talent and benefitted from its news being current, this recent revision profits from a fantastic multiethnic cast and three decades of time in which to reflect upon the 1992 Los Angeles Uprising. Gregg T. Daniel’s direction of this play was masterful, with Hugo Armstrong the MVP of the show in multiple, very different roles. This was a magnificent production that I don’t think quite got its due at the time.
Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Into the Woods is one of the best musicals ever made, and so doesn’t need much description here. But this year’s production at the Ahmanson Theatre was a superlative revival that got everything wonderfully right. Stephanie J. Block was terrific as The Baker’s Wife, in a star turn that earned its radiance. Katy Geraghty was hilarious as Red Riding Hood, and Kennedy Kanagawa worked wonders puppeteering the adorable Milky White. I’m not usually a big musical fan, but when music, performance and dance all come together exquisitely there’s nothing like it, and Into the Woods was that kind of amazing experience.
LAUGHS THAT CATCH IN THE THROAT –
Elizabeth Dement’s No Place Like Gandersheim is a time-traveling comedy about a woman writer trying to get her voice heard without censorship, and while it’s very amusing, it also points out that this is an issue that hasn’t gone away, which is not so amusing. The production at the Skylight Theatre was entertaining and smart, and featured a strong lead performance from Jamey Hood, who always improves any show she’s in. L.A. treasure Shannon Holt, however, steals the show in two roles with brilliant comedic skill and high energy – this was the funniest performance I saw all year.
Mara Nelson-Greenberg’s Do You Feel Anger? is a show full of uncomfortable laughter that gradually curdles into horror, a comedic nightmare about the darker side of the war between the sexes. In a way, it’s not unlike the Alex Garland film, Men, in which the male gender itself is the source of abuse and terror. And yet somehow Nelson-Greenberg manages to get this heavy message across with a lot of humor. Director Halena Kays presents the stylized, twisted nature of this show perfectly, and Tasha Ames is great in an outstanding performance that epitomizes the manic, damaged heart of the play.
THE DEVIL MADE THEM DO IT –
It’s not very often when the merch for a new project consists of t-shirts reading: YOUR MOTHER SUCKS COCKS IN HELL, but not every show is blessed to be Exorcistic: The Rock Musical. The Orgasmico Theatre Company’s production of Michael Shaw Fisher’s musical adaptation of The Exorcist is both an affectionate tribute to the classic film/novel and also a wild explosion of raunchy good spirits, unbridled energy and clever wordplay. For less easily offended types, this show was a blast, highlighted by the amazing, go-for-broke performance by Emma Hunton as the possessed “Meagan.”
EVERY UNHAPPY FAMILY IS UNHAPPY IN ITS OWN WAY –
Aaron Posner’s Life Sucks., an update on Uncle Vanya, not only interrogates cranky Uncle V but also all the other characters in the play to attempt to understand their tragedies and possibly resolve them. The production by Interact Theatre Company was smart, funny, audacious and finally moving. Posner’s writing is witty but also challenges the traditional way in which these characters have been seen and uncovers answers that are surprisingly deep and emotional. In a very talented cast, Erin Pineda stood out as Ella in a sharp, refreshingly confrontational and hilarious performance.
Will Arbery’s Heroes of the Fourth Turning is well-written and entertaining, but its main achievement is in humanizing characters with repellent beliefs. Although its conservative Catholic Republicans don’t match the average portrait of a Trump voter, the play still captures some of the MAGA mindset, albeit the more tortured, intellectual variety. Guillermo Cienfuegos shows up a second time on this list (this time at Rogue Machine) for his superb direction of an excellent ensemble, and Evangeline Edwards was memorably great as the Ann Coulter-like Teresa, whose skill at verbal combat scares her friends into uncomfortable silence.
Of all the shows I recommended to people this past year, the most difficult one to encourage audiences to see was Ashley Rose Wellman’s Kill Shelter. This was understandable, as it’s set in an animal shelter that euthanizes unwanted pets after a set time has passed, and we see several staged (not real) euthanizations during the course of the play. So it’s a tough watch, and the audience was frequently in tears, but here’s the thing – it’s one of the best plays of the year and was completely worth the discomfort. The plight of the main character, who works in the shelter to support her family, is explored with empathy, and the plight of the poor animals in the shelter (brilliantly portrayed via large puppets in heartbreaking performances by various cast members) is explored through a smart look at why such shelters exist and what could be done to improve the situation. Kudos to Theatre of NOTE for taking on such tough material and delivering such an excellent production.
Here are some shows, performances or technical achievements that were also superior in quality –
Faline England as Pony in The Realistic Joneses at the Rubicon Theatre
Cindy Nguyen as Empress Teishi in Unrivaled at Boston Court Pasadena
Lou Cranch’s costume design for Crabs in a Bucket at Echo Theater Company
Jesse Janzen as Marco in A View from the Bridge at Ruskin Group Theatre
The ensemble in Radical, or are you gonna miss me? at IAMA Theatre Company