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All the Year's a Stage

2008's top ten East Bay plays.



If last year was a good year for the Irish in East Bay theatre, with standout productions of George Bernard Shaw and Martin McDonagh, 2008 was understandably dominated by election-themed plays but found room for multiple productions of Candide, Uncle Vanya, Pericles, The Best Man, Macbeth, and more Midsummer Night's Dreams than you could shake a spear at. It was the usual mix of the sublime and the dreadful, with most shows falling comfortably in the middle. Of the hundred-odd productions I caught in 2008, here's my East Bay top ten, ranked roughly in order of preference.

1. Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage, Shotgun Players. This commissioned collaboration with New York's Banana Bag & Bodice transformed the Old English epic poem into a brawny and raucous musical with flamboyant theatricality, wrestling matches, go-go dancing warriors, and a jargon-spouting academic panel that turned into monsters. It also shared a vital component with last year's top pick, Ten Red Hen's Clown Bible: the fiendishly clever, cabaret-infused music and songwriting of Dave Malloy. Although Beowulf's extended run came and went this summer, there's one last chance to see it at Berkeley Rep's Roda Theatre on January 8, newly revamped for an upcoming New York run.

2. Figaro, Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Minneapolis' Theatre de la Jeune Lune made one last visit to Berkeley Rep before dissolving this year with this captivating Beaumarchais/Mozart mashup of the Figaro trilogy. Hilarious and bittersweet performances by co-adapters Dominique Serrand and Steven Epp as the tattered Count and servant Figaro on the run from the French revolution, with their youthful high jinks played out in lush operatic flashbacks with their younger counterparts.

3. Ching Chong Chinaman, Impact Theatre. Rife with magical realism and blithely inappropriate Asian-on-Asian stereotyping, twentysomething local playwright Lauren Yee gave Impact's season a thunderous start with her comedic portrait of the all-American Wong family: the affably clueless dad, the aimless mom, the teen daughter stressing over her lack of colorful roots for her Princeton application, and the son who's had the bright idea to obtain a Chinese indentured servant to do his homework and chores so he can play video games all day.

4. Uncle Vanya, California Shakespeare Theater. Erstwhile San Jose Rep artistic director Timothy Near absolutely nailed the Chekhov classic in her Cal Shakes debut. She and a top-to-bottom stellar cast wrung uproarious laughter out of the bleak comedy of depression and regret that so often doesn't seem like a comedy at all, bringing out every ounce of humor that's actually in the text rather than trying to make it funny with extraneous slapstick.

5. Jukebox Stories: The Case of the Creamy Foam, Impact. Playwright-storyteller Prince Gomolvilas and singer-songwriter Brandon Patton's show may have been a sequel/continuation of their similarly structured show from the 2006-2007 season, but it was also an endlessly entertaining grab bag of songs, wry anecdotes, and blog entries that could be enjoyed again and again because every night was different. The set list chosen at random might include encounters with Maury Povich or an analysis of High School Musical 2 as gay fantasia.

6. Taking Over, Berkeley Rep. In one of the two solo shows Tony Taccone directed this year (the other being Carrie Fisher's Wishful Drinking), hip-hop monologist Danny Hoch turned kvetching over the gentrification of his Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn into a bitingly funny portrait gallery of working-class natives turned outsiders and carpetbagging buffoons alike with chameleon-like dexterity.

7. Ubu for President, Shotgun. Josh Costello's reworking of Alfred Jarry's absurd and scatological Ubu Roi as a madcap presidential election romp was fast and loose and ultimately irresistible in Shotgun artistic director Patrick Dooley's outdoor staging. Casi Maggio's pop-tart teen princess and Sung Min Park's new-age peacenik in particular were priceless.

8. Monster in the Dark, foolsFURY. What might otherwise have been a standard-issue authoritarian future dystopia was made fresh and compelling through playwright Doug Dorst's amusing and evocative newspeak and the dancelike physicality of artistic director Ben Yalom's staging following political prisoners, bureaucrats, outsiders, teachers, zealots, bogeymen, and secret police from the iron grip of the Structure through Armageddon and beyond.

9. TRAGEDY: a tragedy, Berkeley Rep. Like a Beckettian Daily Show, Will Eno's play-as-newscast descended gingerly into chaos with four TV reporters and a man in the street in sky-is-falling panic over what sounds suspiciously like an ordinary nightfall. Philosophical abstractions and hilarious poetic inanities such as "It's the worst world in the world here tonight, Frank" were delivered with somber broadcaster's gravitas as the newsmen (and the play) gradually came to pieces in Les Waters' dazzling production.

10. The Musical of Musicals: The Musical!, Center REPertory Company. Telling the same dimestore melodrama tale of the fiendish landlord and the hapless ingénue in the style of five different Broadway songwriting teams, Eric Rockwell and Joanne Bogart's delightfully broad comedy proved to be a marvelously dead-on satire of the musical genre, from the Oklahoma-like Rodgers and Hammerstein send-up to a Sondheim Sweeney-meets-Company mashup. The pièce de résistance was a deliciously bombastic evisceration of Andrew Lloyd Webber pitting The Phantom of the Opera against Evita.

Honorable mentions include TheatreFIRST's haunting pedophilia drama Future Me, and both Mary Zimmerman's lush Arabian Nights and Delroy Lindo's sharp take on August Wilson's Joe Turner's Come and Gone at Berkeley Rep, and Jonathan Moscone's sparkling staging of Wilde's An Ideal Husband at Cal Shakes.

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