Acting pleasant

Pub date January 2, 2008
WriterRobert Avila
SectionArts & CultureSectionTheater

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George Bernard Shaw once titled a bound collection of his dramas Plays Pleasant and Unpleasant, thus inadvertently summing up any year in any theater scene anywhere. But this is a happy time, so we can concentrate on the former.

The pool of local acting talent, in particular, spoils us in the Bay Area. While it’s not hard to find a strong performance from last year, finding room to list them all is another story, and a much longer one. But there’s space enough to list a few especially deft turns from 2007, including feats of physical and verbal dexterity, like the trio of weirdly gesticuutf8g women in Crowded Fire’s wowing production of Lisa D’Amour’s word-struck trailer-park gothic, Anna Bella Eema. Cassie Beck, Julie Kurtz, and Danielle Levin never left their chairs, but watching them — under the superb direction of Rebecca Novick (who stepped down as CF’s artistic director this year) — you didn’t want to leave yours either.

Then there was Alias‘s Carl Lumbly, skipping rope like a welterweight throughout his opening monologue in Jesus Hopped the "A" Train. A world-class actor with an East Bay address, Lumbly crossed the bridge this spring to appear in SF Playhouse’s excellent local premiere of Stephen Adly Guirgis’s raucous drama. As in many Playhouse productions, the cast (astutely directed by the ensemble’s Bill English) was strong as a whole, but the moments when Lumbly’s upbeat, ever-hopeful death-row sociopath played unlikely mentor to a young neophyte out of his depth (a solid Daveed Diggs) were truly prime time.

The physically and comically nimble cast of writer-director Mark Jackson’s notable premiere, American Suicide — a smart, lively, and very funny adaptation of Soviet Russian Nikolai Erdman’s scathing 1928 comedy that had its lock-solid debut at the Thick House in February — also merit special mention for their fine fleshing out of the play’s arch, cartoonlike histrionics. Headed by the pitch-perfect pair of Jud Williford and Beth Wilmurt in what would have been a suicide mission in lesser hands, they managed the mishmash of zany caricature, a certain 1930s allusiveness, and macabre social satire with engrossing panache. The Coen brothers might have attempted something similar in The Hudsucker Proxy, but remember: they had special effects and coffee breaks. These actors work without a net — though the show’s madcap pace put them at risk of ending up in one.

Although not necessarily as athletic as the title might lead you to expect, Sex (at the Aurora Theatre) threatened to be hard enough, given that the play, while an interesting theatrical relic, has little in its lippy melodrama to shock audiences 80 years after its scandalous Broadway opening. Furthermore, stepping into Mae West’s shoes is a fine-line idea that had better be managed with grace and attitude. Fortunately, Delia MacDougall (in the attention-grabbing role West wrote for herself) proved a dazzling tightrope walker in pumps, creating a West-worthy impression in no way reducible to a mere impersonation (which is still fine at parties). (MacDougall, incidentally, was a hilarious part of Jackson’s American Suicide cast.) Costume designer Cassandra Carpenter decked out MacDougall and the rest of the company beautifully in pristine period threads indicative of the unexpected degree of life director Tom Ross and his thoroughly fine cast found in the play.

And as memorable costumes go, I wonder who among us present for Kiki and Herb: Alive on Broadway (at the American Conservatory Theater’s Geary Theater in July) could forget that frilly-legged chiffon number (by designer Marc Happel) on Justin Bond as the singing, slinging half of those two lounge legends? Needless to say, in the brilliant haute tastelessness of the Kiki and Herb aesthetic, this was genius swathing genius.

But back to casts (and premieres): the Custom Made Theatre Company scored a real coup, if not a coup d’état, with the Bay Area premiere of Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins. The small black box company assembled a terrific cast and offered a smart production design in no way lessened by its clearly low-budget proportions. Artistic director Brian Katz’s agile execution, if that’s the right word, of Sondheim’s musical-drama rumination on the men and women who tried to assassinate various American presidents was one of the year’s little big surprises and, heading into election year 2008, left us on a feel-good note.