By Sam Hurwitt published December 18, 2019 by the San Jose Mercury News
The Bay Area is always bursting with more exciting theater than any one person could possibly see. I caught 138 plays and musicals in 2019 and still kicked myself for missing others that sounded fantastic.
There are so many shows that have stuck with me, from the piercing scrutiny of the audience’s voyeurism of murdered black men in Shotgun’s “Kill Move Paradise” to the Kilbanes’ soaring songs in San Francisco Shakespeare Festival’s “As You Like It,” the special effects wizardry of “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” at The Curran to the spellbinding construction and buzzing life of a house in Berkeley Rep’s “Home.”
That makes it a fascinating challenge to distill at least a couple dozen truly exceptional plays into a Top Ten list of memorable shows, but here they are, in no particular order:
“King of the Yees,” San Francisco Playhouse: The metafictional tomfoolery flew fast and furious in Lauren Yee’s madcap and touching tribute to her father, a hilarious romp through a mythic version of San Francisco’s Chinatown, right before Yee’s “The Great Leap” played at American Conservatory Theater. It proved rewarding just following its phenomenal cast to other shows at Z Space (“Ripped”), SF Playhouse (“Dance Nation,” “Groundhog Day”) Magic Theatre (“The Chinese Lady”) ACT (“Rhinoceros”) and TheatreWorks (“The Language Archive”).
“The Good Person of Szechwan,” California Shakespeare Theater: Artistic director Eric Ting breathed electric new life into Bertolt Brecht’s theatrical parable with a marvelous cast and sharp humor, including some incisive metacommentary about Brecht not really knowing much about China. It was the kind of production that showed you just how exciting and vital a familiar classic could be.
“The Flick,” Shotgun Players: The uncomfortable silences and unconventional, slow-boiling dramatic structure proved riveting in Jon Tracy’s beautifully paced production of Annie Baker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning three-hour play eavesdropping on suburban movie theater employees as they sweep up and talk around their sad, lonely lives.
“Her Portmanteau,” American Conservatory Theater: Restless resentment and regret seeped through every conversation in this gripping drama about an adult daughter come to stay with the mother who abandoned her in infancy. Its run overlapped with another part of Mfoniso Udofia’s nine-play cycle about this Nigerian American family, “In Old Age” at Magic Theatre.
“Pride and Prejudice,” Santa Cruz Shakespeare: Not to be confused with TheatreWorks’ new musical, this wildly funny version by Kate Hamill (whose “Vanity Fair” played ACT this year) takes brilliant liberties that somehow feel truer to the Jane Austen classic than many more straightforward adaptations, and were brought to life hilariously in the Santa Cruz Shakes production. Center Rep is also doing this version next spring.
“Wink,” Marin Theatre Company: A play that starts with a husband skinning his wife’s cat and casually lying about its disappearance might sound like a tough sell, but this world premiere by Jen Silverman goes from there on a darkly hilarious, mind-bending journey involving a roaming anthropomorphic cat, a primly repressed psychiatrist and an imaginary terrorist.
“Ripped,” Z Space: The sheer rawness of Rachel Bublitz’s world premiere drama made it brutally appropriate to its thorny subject matter of campus sexual assault and the uncomfortable gray areas of consent (also the subject of “Actually” at Aurora), deftly unfolding what happened through a fractured, nonlinear structure.
“The Jungle,” Curran: The grand old theater was entirely transformed into a cramped communal dining hall for this immersive drama transporting the audience inside a refugee camp in France. With an international cast including several real-life refugees, this British import brought refugees’ plight home in a stunningly visceral and immediate way.
“Cry It Out,” Just Theater and Custom Made Theatre Co.: Molly Smith Metzler’s play cast an intense light on just how hard new motherhood can be and how high the stakes are, as neighbors from different socioeconomic strata bond over challenges in common even as their sets of options prove very different.
“Kiss My Aztec!,” Berkeley Repertory Theatre: Longtime artistic director Tony Taccone’s swan song at Berkeley Rep was this boisterous musical that he co-wrote with John Leguizamo, a revisionist romp in which the Aztecs get the upper hand over their conquistadors. With outrageous comedy and dynamite songs by Benjamin Velez, David Kamp and Leguizamo, it felt like a much-needed celebratory triumph in dark times.