Published in KPBS On Air Magazine January 2005

It’s long been known that terrible times engender exciting art. And it was a less than stellar year for America – war abroad, extreme divisiveness at home, fear -mongering right and left, topped off by an incredibly contentious election. We won’t even talk about the terrors of local politics – indictments, fiscal crises, write-in Mayors and all sorts of mayhem. Amid all the madness, San Diego stages were thrumming with activity and creativity. Theatrically speaking, as the song goes, ‘It was a very good year.’

We had a raft of political plays to get and keep us thinking: Continental Divide at La Jolla Playhouse, Laterthanever productions’ Mrs. Farnsworth, Stone Soup Theatre’s Two Rooms, Mo’olelo’s debut production, Remains, the reprise of the Playwrights Project’s Patté Award-winning Forty Miles from Tel Aviv and provocative readings of A Girl’s War (Carlsbad Playreaders ) and a splendid, four-night series of fresh, topical plays produced under the banner of Artists for Intelligent Politics, which included David Hare’s Stuff Happens and the Riot Group’s Pugilist Specialist, both of which recently made waves abroad and in New York. It was an excellent year for contemplating the role of science in our everyday lives, via three superb productions: Backyard’s Experiment with an Airpump , the Globe’s Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow, and Sledgehammer’s Kid-Simple.

Of course, we got a surfeit of Shakespeare – particularly with the Old Globe’s revival of its summer Shakespeare Festival, which, under the expert artistic direction of Darko Tresjnak , performed three plays in repertory: Antony and Cleopatra, Two Noble Kinsmen and As You Like It. There was plenty of Shakespeare at smaller venues as well: UCSD mounted a magnificent Richard III, Sledgehammer tackled Macbeth, while Lamb’s wrestled with Hamlet; there was a Twelfth Night courtesy of New Village Arts and Poor Players, who did one muscular, timely production after another, under the artistic direction of its consummate lead actor, Richard Baird, especially succulent in Henry IV, Measure for Measure and Macbeth.

When times are tough, some people prefer The Great Escape. Well, it was a banner year for musicals and comedies, three of which – each a stunner — made their way to Broadway. In the spring, we were treated to the La Jolla Playhouse’s Page to Stage work-in-progress, Billy Crystal’s 700 Sundays, a hilarious and heartbreaking memoir. In the fall, the Playhouse brought us a world premiere musical, Jersey Boys, which featured the life story and the classic, unforgettable music of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. Terrific music and a great, rock ‘n’ roll, rags-to-riches tale of friendship, success, prison, loyalty and breakup. Extra bonus: seeing Frankie Valli and Bob Gaudio near tears on opening night. Both knockout shows were directed by Des McAnuff.

In 2004, the Old Globe gave the world a musical version of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, that movie-first comedy about two charmingly unsavory con artists who seduce and scam wealthy, unsuspecting women. Directed by Jack O’Brien and created by his award-winning Full Monty team, the show featured John Lithgow and the irresistible triple-threat (fresh from his big success in Wicked), Norbert Leo Butz . Great fun!

Our highest profile resident directors, Jack O’Brien and Des McAnuff, both had a busy year…. though they didn’t spend that much of it in San Diego . McAnuff opened a mega-extravaganza on Frank Sinatra at Radio City Music Hall , and the Playhouse scored big at the Tony Awards, with huge wins for their very first Page to Stage production, I Am My Own Wife, starring the incredible Jefferson Mays. The show won for Best Play and also snagged the Pulitzer Prize. Jeff won the Tony for Best Performance – a well-deserved accolade. And good news for San Diegans – the production will be back, for this year’s La Jolla Playhouse season. Meanwhile, close on the heels of his huge success and multiple Tony Awards for the ab-fab musical, Hairspray, Jack O’Brien won another Tony for his direction of Henry IV, which also won for Best Revival.

Meanwhile, here at home, the musicals were hot (most notably, San Diego Rep’s Crowns, Cygnet’s unique and outstanding Bed and Sofa, Starlight’s Sweeney Todd and Moonlight’s Cabaret). And the dark comedies were especially delicious: the Rep’s Women Who Steal, Renaissance Theatre’s Gingerbread Lady, 6th @ Penn and Moxie Theatre’s Kimberly Akimbo, and Lamb’s Players Art. For sheer comic diversion, there was Cygnet’s Fully Committed, Renaissance Theatre’s Shirley Valentine and North Coast Rep’s Breaking Legs.

Onstage and off, there was no lack of drama — from the Grassroote Greeks monthly readings, to 6th @ Penn’s Kiss of the Spider Woman, The Maids, The Road to Mecca and A Lesson from Aloes; two outstanding collaborative productions from Theatre and Common Ground Theatre —   Saturday Night at the Palace and A Raisin in the Sun, New Village Art’s Still Life and A Lie of the Mind, Sledgehammer’s A Dream Play, Cygnet’s Las Meninas , UCSD’s Streetcar Named Desire and North Coast Rep’s The Chosen.

Exciting premieres of new plays by local writers included Mat Smart’s The Hopper Collection, Seema Sueko’s Remains, Cool as We Fly by Ruff Yaeger , Joan Beber’s Ethel Sings and Jim Caputo’s Maternal Spirits. Plus, we were graced with the latest works of Arthur Miller (Resurrection Blues at the Globe) and Luis Valdez (Earthquake Sun at San Diego Rep).

What a year! It may not have been politically satisfying for all, but it sure was theatrically rewarding. Killer comedy, drama and world premiere musicals – a frontal assault on a theater near you.

©2005 Patté Productions Inc.