"A Life in the Theater" (Gem Theatre, Garden Grove): The Grove Theatre Company gave David Mamet's thoughtful contemplation of the acting profession an equally thoughtful staging, crystallized in two hard-to-shake performances by Wayne Watkins and John-David Keller.
-- "Quilters" (Laguna Playhouse, Laguna Beach): This spare production painted a haunting portrait of frontier life, told through seamless ensemble work, simple but startlingly effective design elements and eerie musical effects provided by on-stage musicians.
-- "Cole" (Muckenthaler Cultural Center, Fullerton): A warm summer night, a cozy outdoor setting and the music of Cole Porter--who could ask for anything more? Well, a better sound system would have helped. But everything else was de-lovely, especially Pippa Winslow's memorable rendition of "The Laziest Gal in Town."
-- "The Two Gentlemen of Verona" (Saddleback College, Mission Viejo), "The Merchant of Venice" (Orange Coast College, Costa Mesa) and "Romeo and Juliet" (Cal State Fullerton): Three intriguing productions pulled Shakespeare into contemporary times by visually blurring the time frames with a mix of modern and Elizabethan dress and allusions. The results were happily audacious, occasionally eye-popping and often revelatory.
-- "The Plaie Called Corpus Christi," (UC Irvine): It is difficult to imagine a more vivid treatment of the story of the Crucifixion than the literate, theatrical production staged by UCI's Focused Research Project in Medieval Theatre Studies as the conclusion of its three-year exploration of the genesis of English-language theater.
-- "Hold Me!" (Garden Grove Community Theatre: The black humor of Jules Feiffer was well-served in this biting slice of contemporary angst, dished out by a versatile (and tireless) cast of five.
-- "Working" (Newport Theatre Arts Center, Newport Beach): Studs Terkel's 1974 book of interviews with American workers may sound like unlikely material for a musical, but the treatment here was quietly moving, illuminated by strong vocal work and a clutch of affecting individual performances.
-- "A Little Hotel on the Side" (Rancho Santiago College, Santa Ana). Georges Feydeau's farce was served up in high style, with all of its sublime silliness in tact.
-- "The Pirates of Penzance" (on board the brig Pilgrim II, Dana Point Harbor): This lively, edited production of Gilbert and Sullivan's comic opera provided the perfect match of atmosphere and material. The quarters were cramped, but that didn't deter the nimble cast, which scrambled across the decks, over the sides and up the riggings.
-- "The Belle of Amherst" (Laguna Playhouse): In a weekend of special benefit performances to raise funds for the community theater's building fund and endowment campaign. Julie Harris led the audience into the dark corners of the reticent world of Emily Dickinson, shedding light on the poet's life and works along the way. Her intricate portrayal produced a remarkable evening of theater.