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12.23.09

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Phaedra

Photograph by Wendell H. Wilson

$@$%@!!!

Eric Burke and Jason Souza co-starred in a 'Glengarry' that refused to gel.

By David Templeton


All across the culturally fecund North Bay over the course of a normal 52-week year, hundreds of theatrical productions are conceived, green-lighted, rehearsed and presented by dozens of local theater companies. It is fortunate that our local theater scene boasts an enormous amount of talent and creativity. Rarely do I see a show that does not offer me some reason to be glad I showed up. In fact, the all-around quality of theater in the area has made me eternally expectant, always arriving on opening night with high expectations.

This is a good thing.

It is also, occasio nally, a pain in the ass.

Every once in a while, as it must be, my high expectations are met by disappointment, usually because I know how much better the cast, crew, director or people-who-pick-the-shows could have been. This is based on my having seen first-hand the level of quality these theater folks are capable of and feeling let down when they occasionally do not live up to their past performances.

With this in mind, I have compiled a short list of the five shows of 2009 that, for one reason or another, disappointed me the most. This is not a list of the "worst" plays, only a description of those productions from which I expected a little more—and sometimes a whole lot more.

1. 'La Cage Aux Folles' Sixth Street Playhouse, which began the year with the outstanding comedy-drama The Scene, stumbled badly with its second show of 2009. The February production of Jerry Herman's beloved La Cage Aux Folles was the victim of behind-the-scenes struggles that resulted in director Joe Higgins' departure from the show just two days before opening. Despite a strong, winning performance by Michael Van Why in the central role of professional transvestite Alban, the production ultimately showed little of the charm, glamour and joyfulness for which it is known.

Perhaps the sense of gloom and heaviness, and the baffling undercurrents of darkness and danger were simply a reflection of the numerous artistic conflicts rumored to have troubled the show from the beginning, or perhaps the depressively eerie tone was merely a stylistic choice. Either way, compared to other productions of La Cage, a show that is usually crammed with light and laughter and love, this unfortunate aberration was easily the biggest letdown of the season.

2. 'Doubt: A Parable' In the weeks and months after viewing them, some shows seem to swell and expand in one's mind, becoming gradually greater and greater, while others only grow fainter, feebler and more transparent. Pacific Alliance Stage Company's staging of John Patrick Shanley's Doubt: A Parable, was one of the latter. Suffering from the kind of wildly uneven casting that plagued many of PASCO's productions over the last few years, the elegantly conceived script was seriously hurt by the weak, unfocused acting of three of the four actors.

As a priest accused of improper relations with a young boy, Michael Wiles was fine, but the rest of the cast all seemed as if they'd been pulled from other shows—and other genres. Especially problematic was first-time actress Marilyn Waters in the extremely difficult, absolutely crucial role of the accused victim's mother. Aside from the admirable guts Waters exhibited in taking so demanding a part with absolutely no previous stage experience, the role—and the play—deserved better, and the experience of Shanley's brilliant puzzle-box was kicked down a few notches as a result.

3. 'Glengarry Glen Ross' Casting was the culprit again in the Ross Valley Players' production of David Mamet's scathing Glengarry Glen Ross. This was especially tragic since the show, directed by Jim Dunn, one of the North Bay's very best directors, renowned for his work with the Mountain Play, boasted two of the best performances of the year. As disreputable real estate salesmen, Eric Burke and Richard Conti were superb.

Unfortunately, the rest of the cast was so far removed in terms of experience and suitability that the show was mortally wounded, a little like serving frozen fish sticks alongside fresh wild salmon. Dunn's usually impressive direction was oddly paired as well, setting Mamet's high-octane dialogue at a painfully drama-deflating pace. This could have been so good—and it almost was.

4. 'Cat on a Hot Tin Roof' Santa Rosa Junior College's annual Summer Repertory Theatre series scored a couple of entertainment triumphs this year, notably its sly Barefoot in the Park and raucously rowdy Wedding Singer. As surprising as those successes were, the tepid presentation of Tennessee Williams' great Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was even more of a shock.

Glacially paced by director James Newman, the show featured an appealingly wise and deeply felt performance by Tim Hayes as plantation owner Big Daddy, but the rest of the cast settled for looking their parts instead of acting the hell out of them, which is what William's masterpiece requires. Add to that the bold but distracting casting of a black actress in the part of Maggie; director Newman obviously believed it could work, but I thought it was jarringly out of context, given the views on interracial marriages in the South at that time. Ultimately, it was the acting that did this production in. Cat is a script that rewards its actors, if they give are up to giving the twisted, soul-baring performances the story demands. Sadly, this cast wasn't up to the challenge. 

5. 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' Arguably the most interesting failure of the year was Sonoma County Repertory Theatre's boldly experimental re-imagining of William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. With an all-star cast, a live band playing the ethereal score and direction by the brilliant, untamed David Lear, this had the potential to be truly great theater. Instead, Lear threw so many ideas at the stage that the result was a bit of a visual and lineal mushpot.

Apparently choosing to stage the show as if it were an actual dream—or perhaps a nightmare—Lear made some wild choices: actresses thrashing about on the ground as if possessed; a Puck who changes character with each new scene; Rude Mechanicals dressed like the opening act for KISS; royals trapped in invisible branches. While the talented cast gave it their all, the end result was a Dream that, despite its brave and ballsy risks, ended up confusing, baffling and disappointingly flat.

Next week, David writes up his annual 'Top 10 Torn Tix,' the favorite shows of 2009.


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