In 2015, I saw 52 different plays; I bested that figure in 2016, and the number goes above 60 if you count a handful of staged readings. And I’ll be brutally honest: most of the theater I saw was mediocre, disappointing, or just plain terrible. Though, of course, to each his or her own—KQED’s theater critic named “The Rules,” which may have been my least favorite play of 2016, his best of the year. (Seriously, if I hadn’t been seated in the middle of a row, I would probably have walked out on “The Rules” after the first half-hour or so; it was only 90 minutes long, but it felt like 900.) There were plenty of other plays I went into with high expectations, like SF Playhouse’s “Seared” and ACT’s “The Realistic Joneses,” that left me utterly cold.
Here, though, are a few that earned a hearty “Bravo!” from this picky theatergoer:
1. “Jitney,” American Stage (St. Petersburg, FL): I generally stick to local theater in these lists, but I’m allowing “Jitney” in due to a loophole: not only is director L. Peter Callender a Bay Area* resident, but he’s going to be bringing it to San Francisco in the spring, and I want everyone to go and see it. (I have no idea if any of the Florida cast members will be reprising their roles, but I’m sure it will be wonderful in any case.)
Whenever people ask me who my favorite playwright is, I always respond with two names: August Wilson and Tom Stoppard. For years, one of my bucket-list goals has been to see all of Wilson’s Century Cycle plays. Thanks largely to American Stage’s decade-long project of producing one Wilson play a year, I’ve managed to see nine out of 10 (I’m still bummed that I missed “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”). For the past several years, I have actually scheduled my yearly trip to visit my parents in St. Pete after checking to see when the company will be producing its annual Wilson play. In February, I’ll be seeing the final one (“Joe Turner’s Come and Gone”—the second play in the cycle, but the 10th produced by American Stage.) Every single production I’ve seen has been extraordinary, and I honor their commitment to Wilson’s work.
* The St. Pete/Tampa region also refers to itself as the “bay area,” but I have noticed that it’s always in lower case. Since San Francisco thinks it is the center of the universe, it’s “Bay Area” hereabouts.
2. “Swimmers,” Marin Theatre Company: Whenever new plays start to seem kind of same-y, I often wonder if it’s due to budgetary constraints: the ideal these days seems to be no more than four actors on a single set. Oh, and see if you can make it a 90-minute one-act. So I applaud Marin Theatre Company for presenting Rachel Bonds’ engaging and ambitious “Swimmers,” featuring an 11-person cast (including L. Peter Callender!) and a sprawling multistory set. The workplace comedy/drama started in the basement of an office building and gradually worked its way up to the rooftop; it dealt with concerns both mundane and profound, but was always completely captivating.
3. “The Shipment,” Crowded Fire: It’s rare that you find yourself sitting in a theater and watching a play with absolutely no idea what will happen next, but such was the experience of seeing Young Jean Lee’s “The Shipment,” which keeps the audience deliriously off-kilter as it veers from stand-up comedy to morality play to a final extended sketch that pulls the rug out from under you with its final line of dialogue.
4. “Master Harold… and the boys,” Aurora Theatre: You know who starred in this play? L. Peter Callender, that’s who. Seriously, the man was everywhere in 2016. This was my first time seeing Athol Fugard’s apartheid-era classic, and I will admit that sometimes it was hard to watch due to the brutal subject matter and intensity of the three characters’ interactions, which were magnified by the intimate setting of the Aurora. But the shattering climactic scene, in which Callender’s aging, black Sam faces off against Andrew Humann’s young, white Hally, will stay with me forever.
5. “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” Shotgun Players: The brilliant, adventurous director Mark Jackson (listen up, MacArthur Genius Grant people!) puts his stamp on Edward Albee’s masterpiece, stripping away the furniture to keep both the cast and the audience off-balance in this exciting production. I saw “Woolf” a few years ago with Kathleen Turner chewing all the scenery in the role of Martha, but Jackson’s is a more well-matched game, bringing David Sinaiko’s George to the fore. The three hours fly by, and best of all, it’s still playing through mid-January.