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12.29.10

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Phaedra
Photograoph by Kevin Berne
BEHOLD THE BARD: MTC's 'Equivocation' tops the list for best local production of 2010.

Top 10 Torn Tickets

One critic's favorite shows from the year that was

By David Templeton


Seventy-seven. That's the number of torn tickets now fluttering to my carpet as I upturn my ancient cigar box and spill an entire year's worth of theatergoing out before me. Seventy-seven ticket stubs, representing 77 shows, an average of 1.4 per week. A new personal record.

It will take me more than an hour to arrange the stubs, and it will then take me days to choose my 10 favorite shows of the year. As usual, I allow myself a moment to mourn those stubs not present, tickets from shows I heard great things about but never found the opportunity to see, like the Imaginists' Facebook Nation and Sixth Street's Dirty Blonde.

As is my tradition, I focus only on those shows produced in Marin, Sonoma and Napa counties. The list I've ended up with marks the shows that, while not necessarily the best of the year, do count as my personal favorites.

Here they are—my Top 10 Torn Tickets of 2010.

1. 'Equivocation' (Marin Theater Company) Bill Cain's brilliant slice of historical fiction was already one of my favorite shows after its premiere in the 2009 season of Ashland's Oregon Shakespeare Festival. That spare, elegant production, I believed, could never be topped—and I was wrong. Director Jasson Minadakis of the Marin Theatre Company ramped up the intensity and emotionality in his own restaging of Cain's intelligent play, which imagines the political and personal forces that led William Shakespeare to write Macbeth. Though set in Jamesian England, the production's exceptional cast performed in modern dress, emphasizing contemporary parallels as Shakespeare strives to write a play to save the soul of his country. It remains my favorite show of 2010.

2. 'The Seafarer' (Narrow Way Stage Company) In Conor McPherson's Seafarer, a group of Irish drinking buddies find themselves battling for their souls on Christmas Eve when the Devil stops by for a friendly game of cards. Under first-time director Tim Kniffin, Narrow Way Stage Company tackled the text-heavy, highly symbolic show with a laid-back energy underscoring the affable nature of the characters, and allowed for a gradually growing build-up of tension as, by the gorgeous and surprising resolution, the Devil gets his due. The result was a supremely satisfying ensemble drama so enjoyable and well-performed that I actually ended up seeing it three times.

3. 'Intimate Apparel' (Alternative Theater Ensemble) Marin's AlterTheater is known for producing spare plays in nontheatrical spaces, and in the case of Lynn Notage's Intimate Apparel, about a turn-of-the-century seamstress, the intimacy of the small art gallery used for the show lent plenty of additional power to the play. Directed by Ann Brebner, the story of Esther's search for love and personal power was moving partly for the beauty of the cast's raw performances, but also because Esther's struggles were staged, literally, right in our faces.

4. 'In the Red and Brown Water' (Marin Theater Company) The first of three plays in Tarell Alvin McCraney's celebrated trilogy, The Brother/Sister Plays, In the Red and Brown Water was staged by MTC's Ryan Rilette with a powerful understanding of the story's underlying connection to African myth and the world of dreams. In Rilette's hands, the poetry of the script— about a poor young woman whose obsession with having a child drives her to destruction—found its equal in the visual beauty of this unforgettable production.

5. 'Emmeline' (Cinnabar Theater) Tobias Picker's 1996 opera Emmeline—for years a passion project of Cinnabar's brilliant and beloved musical director Nina Shuman (who passed away in early December after a long battle with cancer)—was gorgeously realized in a lovely and compelling production, staged by Elly Lichenstein with musical direction by Shuman. Staged last May, it effectively became Shuman's farewell. The story of a lonely woman haunted by the loss of her illegitimate child had elements of Greek tragedy yet was always grounded in the tenderly believable humanity of the characters. Easily one of the most moving productions of the year.

6. 'The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee' (SRT) Six troubled preteens compete against each other in a small-time spelling bee, singing as they go about their competitive impulses and deep insecurities. Though far less polished than the professional version that toured San Francisco in 2008, Summer Repertory Theater's student production was pleasantly energetic, giving its actors lots of opportunity to be weird, wacky and, in the end, wonderfully sweet.

7. 'The Comedy of Errors' (Sonoma County Repertory Theater) Director David Lear's commanding production took the limitations and challenges of Shakespeare's hard-to-do Comedy of Errors and turned them into assets. An agile and fearless cast grabbed this supremely silly material and rode it for all it was worth. Ultimately, by teasing the many failures of the script (having, for example, the actors fall asleep one by one during long, boring speeches), Lear turned one of the Bard's least funny comedies into one of the funniest shows of the season.

8. '9 Circles' (Marin Theatre Company) The second Bill Cain play to appear on this list, and the third by the Marin Theatre Company, 9 Circles created a sense of intensity and rising danger that was at times nearly unbearable. In telling the story of a mentally unstable soldier accused of war crimes, Cain (a practicing Jesuit priest as well as a playwright) took audiences through a stylized version of Dante's nine circles of Hell. Directed with taught focus of purpose by Kent Nicholson, the remarkable one-act was a brilliantly executed, aggressively acted immersion into the confusion of war.

9. 'We ♥ You, Nosferatu' (Cinnabar Theater) A last-minute replacement for a different play about vampires, Jack Paglen's We ♥ You, Nosferatu was perhaps the biggest pleasant surprise of 2010. A bracingly clever satire of the current Twilight-fueled cultural obsession with vampires, this multimedia comedy directed by Beth Craven also stood as a potent examination of our culture's tendency to make evil sexy, involving Skype conversations that grow both darker and funnier until the cleverly vicious punch line.

10. 'A Christmas Carol' (The Imaginists) This inventive update of Charles Dickens' overdone Christmas Carol went right to the sympathetic heart of the story, adding frightening ghost-story flourishes but always grounded in humanity. The emotional power of Dickens' story, dulled by so many uninspired retellings, was enhanced in this production by directors Amy Pinto and Brent Lindsay, turning Bob Cratchit into a bilingual Mexican immigrant and Scrooge's nephew Fred into a persistently patient lesbian with a brand-new wife. The modern touches added extra oomph to Scrooge's gradual emergence from a life of fear and prejudice, and the ending, in which Scrooge embraces all those he's held at arms length, was one of the loveliest moments I've seen onstage all year.


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