Glenn Davis, left, Brad Fleischer and Kevin Tighe in "Bengal Tiger… (Bret Hartman / For The Times )
The word "decline" has cast a dark shadow over more than just America's prosperity. The theater has been in a downward slope since the recession, and only those with their head in the sand could overlook the plummeting number of theatrical offerings, the fall off in institutional ambition, the degeneration of book musicals and the eroded ability of the art form to mirror its own contemporary moment.
Was there a drama as revealing of the zeitgeist as the film "The Social Network" or as expansively ruminative about what led us to this current hole as Jonathan Franzen's novel "Freedom"? The two best plays of 2010 — Rajiv Joseph's "Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo," reprised at the Mark Taper Forum, and Sarah Ruhl's "In the Next Room or the Vibrator Play" at South Coast Rep (after its premiere last year at Berkeley Rep and its subsequent Broadway run) — were already on my 2009 highlight list.
My excursions into the smaller theater scene, while reliably faith-restoring, failed to scare up any dramatic wonders. The productions at the Fountain Theatre and the Theatre @ Boston Court, to name two of the higher-caliber venues, tended to be more memorable than the plays. Elsewhere, the dramatic situation was even more lackluster. (I've long wished to see adventurous directors assume a more prominent role in our local theater culture, but the greater need may be in cultivating more discriminating literary taste.)
Don't get me started on musicals after enduring what appeared to be a high school road company performance of "West Side Story" at the Pantages. And I could write a diatribe on Reprise Theatre Company, which has languished under the leadership of Jason Alexander, who either bites off more than his company can chew ("A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying") or dredges up period shows better left to oblivion. (Why, oh, why, would anyone produce a longer version of "They're Playing Our Song"?).
On the positive side, Bartlett Sher's revival of "South Pacific" at the Ahmanson, starring a melodious Carmen Cusack as Nellie Forbush, was a delight, if not quite up to the standard set by the production at Lincoln Center in 2008. But what a year when even the cheerier memories left a sense of treading water!
Perhaps the sorriest aspect of this general slide is the diminishment of surprise. When did the theatrical universe become so enthralled with the familiar? Movie-to-musical makeovers ("Robin and the 7 Hoods," "Leap of Faith") and revivals of no particular urgency ("Crimes of the Heart," "The Subject Was Roses") have become artistic directors' best friends. They know that audiences are looking for safe bets, and so they keep offering familiar titles, increasingly with familiar names attached. Quality is beside the point — at least until ticket-buyers wise up to the hoax.
There were, however, a few notable exceptions to this staid rule, productions that defied theatergoers' expectations, that refused to accommodate our yawning — I mean yeaning — for the tried and true. Guided by intrepid directors, these works took risks that challenged and sometimes even affronted audiences. Anyone expecting piety for tradition was in for a rude awakening. These reinventions of classics and demi-classics carried the shock of the new.
Achim Freyer's handling of "Der Ring des Nibelungen" for the LA Opera rankled purists, but the production's flowing tableau was one of the most impressive feats of stagecraft I've ever experienced. This was no standard re-creation of the Wagnerian myth, but an overwhelming multimedia incarnation, part Salvador Dalí, part Steven Spielberg — and altogether a Postmodern mélange served with a neo-Brechtian twist.
Some of the backlash incited by the production was justified. The glacial pacing on the severely raked stage was excruciating at times, and not all of the singing was up to par. Yet the audacity of Freyer's wild dioramic approach breathed new life into the marathon experience.
Robert Woodruff's production of "Notes From Underground" at La Jolla Playhouse performed another feat of 21st century alchemy, transforming Fyodor Dostoevsky's slim, splenetic novel into a starkly modern theatrical vision. Bill Camp, who adapted the work with Woodruff, brought a fiendish virtuosity to his portrayal of the reclusive 40-year-old clerk whose recollections and recriminations constitute Dostoevsky's baleful book.
Literary types expecting a polite illustration of a masterpiece were in for a surprise. Camp's performance, blending flamboyant narcissism with equally flamboyant abjection, is both true to the bleak experience of the protagonist and an utterly original representation of it. The Nietzschean hip-hop soundscape only intensified the peculiar present-tense force of this retelling.
The Wooster Group's "Vieux Carré" similarly captured the essence of Tennessee Williams' late memory play while completely overhauling its surface. The company's layered technological aesthetic might seem antithetical to Williams' lyrical temperament, but the two sensibilities managed not just to coexist but to create something mutually regenerative.
The bold directorial strategies of Freyer, Woodruff and the Wooster Group's Elizabeth LeCompte boisterously divided theatergoers (radical departures from the theatrical status quo always do). Even Gordon Edelstein's inventive production of "The Glass Menagerie" at the Taper, while by no means the work of a gun-slinging auteur, raised some pique over relatively minor liberties. Rousing the stage from its doldrums is a dangerous job, but these torpid times cry out for fearless measures.