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YEAR IN REVIEW / 1996 | THEATER NOTES

A Few Things Memorable

December 29, 1996|Don Shirley | Don Shirley is a Times staff writer

Here are 10 memorable productions from 1996. This list purposely excludes anything that's on theater critic Laurie Winer's list (see adjacent story). Also, it should be noted that shows can be terrific without necessarily being memorable. Revivals of familiar shows might be wonderful, but unless they do something new with the material, they're more quickly forgotten than shows that tackle something new.

In chronological order based on when I saw them:

1. "I AM A MAN" at the Fountain Theatre. OyamO examined the prelude to the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., but he didn't write about King or his assassin. Instead, his subject was the garbage workers' strike that drew King to Memphis, and especially the classically tragic figure of T.O. Jones, the grass-roots leader of that strike. The play is a complex examination of what exactly that title, "I Am a Man," means, and Anthony J. Haney's staging was worthy of the play.

2. "THE TAMING OF THE SHREW" at South Coast Repertory. Say what you will about show-stopping directors who call attention to their own creativity when they reinterpret Shakespeare, but this is one play that needs a vigorous reexamination, and Mark Rucker was just the right director to do it. He coordinated an eye-popping design that placed the proceedings in late '50s Little Italy--or was it Las Vegas? He inserted the funniest slide show of the year, and his actors made more sense and got more laughs out of the play than I would have imagined possible.

3. "GREAT EXPECTATIONS" at A Noise Within. This group recently completed an ambitious production of "A Christmas Carol," but its earlier, more modest taste of Dickens was far more satisfying. It's a pip of a story, of course, and Barbara Field's adaptation tells it crisply, but it was the actors from A Noise Within's company and the work of directors Geoff Elliott and Julia Rodriguez Elliott that made the tale sing.

4. "THE IMAGINARY INVALID" at the Actors' Gang. Director Beth Milles moved Moliere's classic into an arena-style configuration that suggested a circus ring, as did the makeup, the costumes and the physicality of the cast, making this show as vivid and colorful as the big top. Daniel Parker's title turn and his later, drastically varied roles in Tracy Young's "Euphoria" at the same theater added up to a great year for him. (While we're discussing actors, let's also glance down the block at Dennis Christopher's exemplary performance in the Blank Theatre's "Breaking the Code," in a space that used to be the Actors' Gang's.)

5. "LEANDER STILLWELL" at Lee Strasberg Theatre. David Rush's adaptation of a heartbreaking Civil War memoir was brought to dynamic life by Drew Martin in an environmental staging, first seen at Stage Left Theatre in Chicago in 1992. The actors were practically in the audience's laps, but the sense of period remained intact.

6. "CAROUSEL" at the Ahmanson Theatre, later at Orange County Performing Arts Center. A character in "Light Up the Sky" (nicely revived by Actors Co-op this year) goes around exclaiming, "I could cry!" Well, take him to "Carousel." I can't remember a production that evoked such tears. Reduced to this kind of an emotional reaction, I'm speechless except to add that when I saw the same production in New York, my eyes barely misted. Were they pumping something into the air at the renovated Ahmanson?

7. "HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING" at the Pantages Theatre, later at Orange County Performing Arts Center and the McCallum. By turning the back of the stage into a giant field of CD-ROM-like imagery, director Des McAnuff and his designers suggested the changing nature of today's business world without betraying the essential early '60s era. Fortunately, the human beings in the cast were as good as the graphics, and Wayne Cilento's choreography cannily capitalized on the dancers' relationship with those looming graphics.

8. "MAD FOREST" at the Matrix Theatre. Anyone who lives through a revolution has some interesting stories. Caryl Churchill found a lot of these people in Romania and dramatized their somewhat overlapping sagas in a sure-handed way, occasionally dropping into fantasy, and writing only one scene that was too long and too bloodless. Stephanie Shroyer's staging in every corner of the Matrix space, using a variety of actors at different performances, made the most of Churchill's intimate view of history.

9. "SIX DEGREES OF SEPARATION" at South Coast Repertory. Here's a conventional revival that was memorable because the earlier versions that I saw just weren't as good. John Guare's scintillating comedy sparkled in David Emmes' staging. It was fun to trace the differences between it, the movie and the less successful production that had played the Doolittle Theatre.

10. "COLLECTED STORIES" at South Coast Repertory. Donald Margulies' "All About Eve"-like tale in the New York literary world provoked a lot of thought about who gets to tell whose story. It also was an irresistible showcase for Kandis Chappell and Suzanne Cryer (who, coincidentally, will be together again in the cast of "Arcadia" at the Taper). Staged by Lisa Peterson, this duet absorbed us in every nuance of these women's lives.

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