As usual, I spent a lot of time at the theater this year. I saw 64 plays, some of which I’ve already forgotten and some of which linger in my mind. These are my favorite Bay Area shows of 2017:
1. “Fun Home,” Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori (The Curran) and “Hamilton,” Lin-Manuel Miranda (SHN): San Francisco got two blockbuster Tony-winning shows this year and while “Hamilton” lived up to the hype and scored record-setting crowds (and ticket prices), I must admit that the less-flashy coming-of-age story “Fun Home” touched my heart a little bit more. Also, I wasn’t completely sold on the actor who played Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson in “Hamilton” (I wish I could have seen Daveed Diggs, who originated the roles), but Isiah Johnson’s Washington was amazing.
2. “The Four Immigrants,” Min Kahng (TheatreWorks): It’s one thing to bring in a musical that’s already got a proven track record of success; it’s quite another to present a home-grown, original work written by a young local playwright. So kudos to TheatreWorks for taking a chance on Min Kahng’s joyful and tuneful show, based on a 1930s manga about four intrepid Japanese men who arrive in San Francisco in the early 20th century. They find love, face prejudice and follow their dreams, all to the beat of Kahng’s infectious score. I would love to see this stellar musical, which received unanimous acclaim from local critics, get produced elsewhere—and I’d certainly run to see it again if it gets a Bay Area reprise.
3. “The (Curious Case of the) Watson Intelligence,” Madeleine George (Shotgun Players): Shotgun had a tremendously strong year, and is currently packing houses with an excellent production of Tom Waits & William S. Burroughs’ “The Black Rider,” but they hit their peak over the summer with this smart, moving show. A powerhouse cast of three played multiple roles, including several different Watsons, past and present (Thomas Edison’s assistant Mr. Watson, Sherlock Holmes’ Dr. Watson, and a humanoid AI based on the “Jeopardy!”-winning supercomputer all make appearances). My favorite scene of the entire year was Mick Mize’s onstage transformation from a modern-day character to a Victorian-era inventor—a genuine tour de force of acting that I wish I could watch over and over again. Hey, at least I came away with a souvenir: Joe asked if we could have the prop Edison phone seen in the pic above after the show’s run, and the Shotgun folks kindly agreed.
4. “John,” Annie Baker (ACT Strand): A couple arrives at a Gettysburg, PA, bed & breakfast, an explosion of chintz, dolls and tchotchkes owned by Mertis, a charming but slightly odd proprietor played by Georgia Engel. Over the course of three hours, we get to know these characters, even if some things remain a mystery (why does sweet Mertis read aloud a passage from H.P. Lovecraft’s The Call of Cthulhu? One can only imagine). I loved every minute of this three-hour-plus play; I love Annie Baker’s ambition and refusal to try to make her plays more marketable by making them shorter and more audience-friendly. There is poetry in her pauses. They’re not for everyone, but I think Baker is a genius, and the MacArthur Foundation agrees with me, awarding her one of their “genius grants” earlier this year. I hope someone in the Bay Area finally manages to stage her 2013 play “The Flick,” which I flew to Chicago to see a couple years back (yes, I’m obsessed!).
5. “Daniel’s Husband,” Michael McKeever (New Conservatory Theatre Center): This was an unabashed tear-jerker, but you know what? It worked. Gay marriage is still a relatively new thing, but NCTC, which primarily presents work by LGBTQ playwrights, has already offered a few different perspectives on the issue (this fall’s charming “Le Switch” also touched on it). This story of a longtime couple, one of whom wants to tie the knot and one who doesn’t, starts out on a light comedic note but takes a tragic turn midway through. A line from the New York Times review of the off-Broadway production sums up my feelings: “Always cry at weddings? The wedding that doesn’t happen might make you weep even more.”
And here’s one to watch in 2018:
“Olga: A Farewell Concert,” Beth Wilmurt (Aurora): This musical work-in-progress, which I was lucky enough to catch during its brief run at Aurora’s Harry’s UpStage, deserves a longer engagement. Local theatrical mainstay Wilmurt performs the show in character as Chekhov’s Olga Sergeyevna Prozorova, the eldest of the “Three Sisters.” Accompanied by her backing band of Russian soldiers, Olga sings a variety of mostly-modern tunes, ranging from the Beach Boys to Frank Black to Stevie Wonder, pausing for an occasional bit of between-song banter. A few more weeks would allow Wilmurt to get even deeper into character and perhaps adjust the set list a bit (she told a reporter that she learned over 50 songs “that feel like Olga,” though only 17 or 18 made it into the hour-long show). I hope the “farewell” in the title turns out to be more of a “see you later.”