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December 27, 2006-January 2, 2007

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'Urinetown'

Post-Modern Potty: Matthew Lazzarini revels in his own filth in 'Urinetown.'

Top 10 Torn Tickets

Looking back at the best of the year's stage

By David Templeton


The cardboard cigar box in which I keep my torn theater tickets is overflowing this =year, a sign that, in quantity at least, 2006 has been a very good year. From January to the present, I have seen exactly 83 shows, including eight plays in Ashland, a handful in San Francisco and 11 in Los Angeles during the two weeks I spent there as part of a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship on theater and musical theater. The rest were all shows produced in the North Bay, which seems to be adding new theater companies the way mushrooms sprout in unexpected corners.

Choosing my top 10 shows, those I am most glad to have seen, is especially tricky since I know that a few of the year's best shows are not represented in my little box of bisected ticket stubs; I have been unable to see everything I'd have liked to. Another reason the task is daunting, thankfully, is that there have been so many good shows to choose from, especially within the last two months or so, when the North Bay theater community seems to have hit some sort of creative mother lode. Here, then, are my top 10 torn tickets of 2006.

1. AlterTHEATER, 'After the Fall' Arthur Miller's autobiographical memory play is hard for any company to stage. San Rafael's experimental After the Fall featured the tightest team of actors I've seen all year, with creative direction by Jessica Heidt and solidly anchored with a stunner of a performance by Karen Aldridge. The immediacy of the staging, with the actors working on the carpet right in front of the audience with no stage and only a minimal set, was high-powered theater that took a troubled, disjointed play and turned it into far more than the sum of its parts. AlterTheater's After the Fall is without hesitation my favorite theater experience of 2006.

2. Actors Theatre, 'Smell of the Kill' In Michele Lowe's viciously brilliant, tightly constructed thriller Smell of the Kill, three women discover that their boorish husbands have stupidly locked themselves in the basement meat locker during a not-so-festive dinner party. The question is whether or not to let them out. The play walks a fine line between comedy and tragedy, and it takes a sure directorial hand and a more than capable cast to make it all work. Actors Theatre's production of Smell befitted from the sensitive direction of David Lear and three spot-on actresses (Kimberly Kalember, Mary Gannon Graham and Sheila Groves) all working at the top of their (dangerous) game.

3. Pacific Alliance Stage Company, 'Sylvia' The main problem with A. R. Gurney's clever play about a man and his dog (and the man's dog-hating wife) is that too many companies try it because it's fun and the cast is small, but few succeed at it. To pull off Sylvia requires more than a physically committed actress in the title role; it also requires a strong set of actors as the husband and wife, actors who can root the thing in the emotional ground it requires. Without that, it's just a goofy show about a woman with funny hair wiggling her butt in the air. Under Hector Correa's knowing direction, PASCO's sold-out and then reprised production of Sylvia was both artistically and financially successful, breaking records at Rohnert Park's Spreckels Center for the Performing Arts. A powerfully open-hearted performance by Stephen Klum as Sylvia's devoted human, and a fully committed Alexandra Matthew as Sylvia herself, brought a kennel's worth of power to this previously worn-out show.

4. Santa Rosa Players, 'Urinetown' A musical about public toilets and backed-up sewers might seem unlikely to become a hit, especially given that the show's stalwart hero is dropped to his death off a 20-story building long before the climax of the show (can you do that in a musical comedy?). The Santa Rosa Players' high-spirited production of Urinetown became an instant word-of-mouth hit, and packed the house with folks eager for something with a bit of edge to it. Director Argo Thompson pulled together a fantastic cast who got the show's postmodern anti-musical joke and took it all the way to the urinal. You've also got to give them extra chutzpah kudos for amiably charging people to pee during intermission, raising a couple of extra hundred dollars that ended up buying the cool umbrella stand now being well-used in the Sixth Street Playhouse lobby.

5. Theatre Arts at SRJC, 'Last Days of Judas Iscariot' Stephen Adly Guirgis' entertainingly chaotic ramble tells of a trial in Purgatory that could end up clearing the name of the world's most notorious traitor. Alternately profane and profound, the project captured the sizable enthusiasm of the JC's theater department, from director Laura Downing Lee to the smallest ensemble part in a vast cast of historical characters. The onstage commitment and intensity of purpose was nothing short of mesmerizing.

6. Cinnabar Theater, 'Girl of the Golden West' Cowboys! Gamblers! Armed highwaymen! Rifle-toting female saloon keepers! High-stakes poker games! Incompetent posses! Wells Fargo agents! All wrapped up in Puccini's operatic, knock-down, Wild West package! Performed with engaging gusto by the Cinnabar Theater, this rarely staged opera was more fun than a handful of aces.

7. Marin Theater Company, 'Killer Joe' Lee Sankowich's direction of Tracy Lett's blood-drenched gothic thriller was simultaneously mean-spirited and lyrical, hard to watch but impossible to look away from. Crammed with frank sexuality, full-frontal male and female nudity, ugly people, ugly deeds and a violent, visceral climax that leaves the stage splattered with blood and the audience shaken, this look at low-life trailer-dwellers trying to make a killing by killing off Mom for her insurance money was not the most uplifting moment of theater this year, but it was certainly among the most unforgettable.

8. Tie between 'The Sunshine Boys' (PASCO) and 'I Am My Own Wife' (Sonoma County Rep) Sometimes the success of a show comes down to nothing more than one great performance. Three of the year's best performances came in two shows that had notable script weaknesses. Will Marchetti and Bob Parnell starred as aging vaudevillians in The Sunshine Boys and Stephen Abbott played dozens of roles in the daring one-man, one-woman show I Am My Own Wife (which is due to be reprised Jan. 6). As thrilling as an Olympic skater landing a triple Lutz, these performances demonstrated acting at it most exciting--both dangerously difficult and confidently well-done.

9. SRJC's Summer Repertory Theater, 'Seussical' A cast of great voices and some cartoonishly apt performers brought this Dr. Seuss extravaganza to bright, silly, wonderful life. The set and costumes sealed the deal. This was one fun summertime show, and I still find myself humming the tunes.

10. Marin Shakespeare Company, 'Comedy of Errors' The MSC has done well with its annual addition of a Shakespeare play directed by James Dunn. Last year's Fellini-esque Two Gentlemen of Verona was clever enough, but the borscht-belt classic-comedy approach he brought to the summer's rim-shot staging of the Bard's Comedy of Errors was inspired. Like a Marx Brothers movie as directed by Mel Brooks, the show was a comedy textbook sprung to life. It actually made the play funny, and if you've ever read the Comedy of Errors, you'll know what a miraculous feat that was. Can't wait to see what Dunn and the MSC come up with next year.


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