Published in KPBS On Air Magazine January 2004

2003 was a fiery year. It began with a bang, and ended in a blaze.

It was a year of conflagration, pre-emption, deception, recession and recall. It burned a lot of us up — and locally, burned a lot up. And when it was all over, still Missing in Action were: Osama, Saddam, WMD and a full-time theater critic at the L.A. Times (2 years and counting).

But theater artists, though they may have a reputation for being black-clad depressives, are eternally optimistic. Amid all the destruction, there was construction. The La Jolla Playhouse broke ground on a new performing arts complex. And a little Cygnet was born. Actor/director Sean Murray created a new theater company and a new space (the reconfigured Actors Asylum near SDSU), which he opened with the knockout/rock-out “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.” UCSD Professor Emeritus Floyd Gaffney launched the Common Ground Theatre and rocked the Kroc Center with Langston Hughes’ rollicking “Tambourines to Glory.” The ARK Center and 6th @ Penn also served as sanctuaries for small, experimental or homeless theater troupes.

First to rent the Cygnet space was the much-lauded Renaissance Theatre Company with “A View From the Bridge.” It’s always a good time for Arthur Miller; his political dramas are ever-applicable. And of course, the Greeks are eternally relevant. This year, GrassRoots Greeks (formed by Linda Castro and David Cohen) continued presenting the tragedies. They were joined by Sledgehammer Theatre for readings of paired Greek translations and adaptations, many written by our own prolific playwright/scholar, Marianne McDonald. Both 6th@Penn and Sledgehammer produced full stagings of classic or updated Greek myths. Fairy tales came delightfully to life on several stages: in the world premiere of Tina Landau’s “Beauty” (based on Sleeping Beauty) at La Jolla Playhouse, “Story Theatre” at North Coast Rep and “Honk!” (a musical riff on The Ugly Duckling) at SDSU. When in doubt, go back to the Basics.

Readings serve that function, too; no stage wizardry, just unadulterated language. There were more readings than ever in 2003. But few were political in nature and virtually none reflected directly on the events that have changed our lives over the last few years. It still remained to Tony Kushner, brilliant spokesperson of our age, to bring the prescient “Homebody/Kabul” to Los Angeles.

Still, it was a vibrant year of theater in San Diego, with provocative plays on many stages: from the mathematically intriguing “Proof” at San Diego Rep, to the Globe’s linguistically head-spinning “Pentecost” and deliciously wicked updating of “Julius Caesar.” There were shocking sexual stories, gay and straight: “Gross Indecency” at Diversionary Theatre; “Stop Kiss” at Women’s Repertory Theatre, “Boy Gets Girl” from Stone Soup Theatre. The colleges presented politically-charged productions of “The Laramie Project” (SDSU) and “Angels in America” (UCSD) and thoughtful new works showed up at 6th @ Penn, the Playwrights Project’s Plays by Young Writers, the UCSD New Play Festival and the Fritz Blitz.

As the supermarket workers’ strike dragged on, we were driven to think about the appalling state of the health-care system (“Knowing Cairo” and “Blue/Orange” at the Globe) and the plight of factory workers (this year’s Pulitzer Prize winner, Nilo Cruz’ “Anna in the Tropics,” at South Coast Repertory Theatre). We reviewed our country’s history with Ellen Burstyn at the Globe, in “Oldest Confederate Widow Tells All” — before she headed to Broadway.

Folks needed to laugh in these tough times, and comedies abounded. In the antic/frantic department, we got the Aquila Theatre production of “Comedy of Errors” at La Jolla Playhouse and the Reduced Shakespeare Company’s “All the Great Books (Abridged)” at the San Diego Rep. Some humorous shows were, thankfully, more than just escapist fluff:   Diversionary’s   “Love! Valour! Compassion!” the Globe’s “Rounding Third,” Vantage Theatre’s “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune” and “Nickels and Dimes,” by Jerry Cesak (1/2 of morning radio’s Jeff and Jer).

No large, Broadway-bound musicals in town this year, but there were outstanding productions of “Cabaret” at North Coast Rep, “Falsettos” at Diversionary, “The Scarlet Pimpernel” at Starlight Musical Theatre, “Trolls” at 6th @ Penn, “1776” at Lamb’s Players Theatre, “An Evenin’ with Billie” (Ira Aldredge Players), “Children of Eden” and “Singin’ in the Rain” at Moonlight Stage Productions and “Annie Get Your Gun” at the Welk Theatre. And Broadway/San Diego provided the touring hotties: “The Producers,” “42nd Street” and “Mamma Mia!” (featuring funny/talented San Diego-born Ellen Harvey).

We celebrated new faces and old. North Coast Repertory Theatre hired respected actor/director David Ellenstein as artistic director, and Ian Campbell marked his 20th anniversary with the San Diego Opera.

Sadly, arts funding was way down. Belts were tightened everywhere. Some less risky theatrical choices were made, to keep audiences coming. But everyone survived. The theater, that “fabulous invalid,” perpetually ailing but always rallying, has done it again. Here’s to a successful revival and vigorous artistic health in the new year!

©2004 Patté Productions Inc.