Our Stage Beaters , who assiduously beat the bushes and back alleys in search of good theater, here give us their Best of 1985 to salute 1986.
Last year was hardly a theater critic's paradise, but it was not without rewards. At its best, local offerings in the past year achieved an objective altogether too rare in most modern theater (at least on the West Coast): not merely entertainment, but sheer transcendence--the ability to so shape a stage world that it serves to permanently alter one's perceptions.
An early example was provided by Ray Stricklyn's "Confessions of a Nightingale" at the Beverly Hills Playhouse, a remarkable remembrance of Tennessee Williams that captured the playwright's persona and thought with uncanny insight.
Similarly, the L.A. Theatre Unit's "Andrea's Got Two Boyfriends" (through Feb. 16 at the Burbage, (213) 478-0897) offers an extraordinary portrait of retarded adults, allowing audiences to see that world through new eyes.
The year's biggest revelation, however--and its nicest surprise--was, is, Paul Verdier's production of "Leonce and Lena" at Stages, (213) 465-1010), a venue that has in the past introduced exceptional talent both local (the Mums) and imported (Ionesco) to L.A. audiences. Working here with a more than 150-year-old social satire by "Woyzeck" author Georg Buchner, Verdier has fashioned a living, breathing evening of theater whose hallmark is its uncommon timelessness.
The daring of Verdier's production lies in its very traditionalism. Originally staged outdoors in replication of the play's Munich premiere and performed in exquisitely rendered commedia dell'arte masks by Norma Bowles, Verdier's "Leonce and Lena" demonstrates that one can bring so-called "closet drama" to vivid life without resorting to hyperkinetic attempts at what Spike Jones used to call "murdering the classics."
The achievement is partly the result of Verdier's balletic comic staging, ripe in ribaldry and benefiting from a lively, naturally poetic translation by Henry J. Schmidt; partly the result of Glynnis Higgins and Emily Payne's resplendent period costumes, and largely due to the efforts of the merry players themselves--among them Stephen Sachs, Rebecca Forstadt, Dominic Hoffman, Frank Novak, Lynne Velling Weiss, Steve Ruggles and Nancy Renee--all of whom seem perfectly attuned to Buchner's particular mix of sweetness and vitriol.
So complete is the illusion that it becomes increasingly hard to believe you're not back in the Renaissance. In its original outdoor incarnation, only the occasional whirring of a police helicopter overhead served as a reminder of the theater's unattractive Hollywood address. The production has since moved indoors, where even that distraction has been eliminated. It's still the most pleasant theatrical vacation you can take in this or any year.