Essay – A Look Back At Sonoma County Theatre in 2014
The end of the year is upon us. ‘Tis the time for making “Best of” lists and several people have asked when I’ll be releasing mine. Quite frankly, I wasn’t sure I really wanted to, but the more I thought about it, the more I thought I should – as long as I could take a little different approach.
Sonoma County is blessed/cursed with an abundance of live theatre – blessed in that it provides opportunities for local artists to execute their craft and for audiences throughout the county’s 1768 square miles to experience live theatre, and cursed in that the sheer number of productions running (often concurrently) stretches the talent pool thin and forces audiences to pick-and-choose more than they might in a more cooperative world.
This blessed/cursed abundance also leads to a sense that shows often circulate between companies and that variety and originality are lacking in our community. That’s tough to argue when you have two theatre companies just 14.1 miles away from each other running the exact same show at the exact same time.
As a critic, the local arts community has (for the most part) welcomed my contributions to the theatrical discussion – whether they agree with me or not. They have made it possible for me to attend a tremendous amount of live theatre and it’s through that arrangement that I can attest that Sonoma County does produce works of variety and originality. Yes, you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a local production of a Broadway musical (Hell, I appeared in three of them this year…) and it’s not always easy to find an original or lesser-known drama or comedy, but they are out there. You just have to look for them. They’re often very good – and sparsely attended.
Sonoma County has very diverse theatre companies and venues from Spreckels’s cavernous Codding Theatre to the now-vagabond Pegasus Theater’s forty folding chairs in the Rio Nido Lodge. Some embrace the “community theatre” label, others aspire to be known as “semi-professional” or “regional”. Some companies have the where-with-all to produce a dozen shows. Others are lucky enough to scrape together the funding for three. This volume (or lack thereof) can often dictate what ends up on a “list” – which is what got me thinking about a different kind of list.
Rather than look at everything I’ve seen this year en masse and then pick “the best”, I’d rather look at each theatre company and give some recognition to what I think was the best production each did this year. It’s the simplest way for me to express that good work is being done everywhere, with the caveat that it was impossible to get out to every theatre company in the county. If your company is not on this list, I will make every effort to get out and see your productions this year. I genuinely want to do so.
After having reviewed all Sonoma County productions I attended this year, here are the productions that stood out to me. They are in alphabetical order by Theatre Company, with excerpts from my original reviews:
Cinnabar Theatre – Petaluma, CA
Of Mice and Men – “…one of the best interpretations of a classic American theatre piece ever produced for the local stage.”
Honorable Mention – Fiddler on the Roof
Cloverdale Performing Arts Center – Cloverdale, CA
Moonlight and Magnolias – “…anyone who appreciates comedy should enjoy this show. Packed with Hollywood-insider trivia, a dynamic lead performance and lots of laughs…”
Main Stage West –Sebastopol, CA
Yankee Tavern – “…the type of show you can go to with a group of friends, become completely invested in over two hours, look at each other when it’s over, get up out of your seats, walk to the nearest bar, and then have a great post-show conversation over a couple of drinks.”
Honorable Mention – T.I.C Trenchcoat in Common
Pegasus Theater – Guerneville, CA
Phoenix – “… a two-person ‘dramedy’ done with minimalist sets and tech elements. It relies completely on the actors and script by Scott Organ to hold an audience’s attention while it tells a tale of human beings making decisions and the ramifications of those decisions.” “…a well-acted piece with mature themes that somehow manages to weave in bowling, time travel, and restraining orders.”
Honorable Mention – The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged)
Raven Players – Healdsburg/Windsor, CA
Nunsense – “…a perfect community theatre piece to introduce the Raven Players to a new community. “
6th Street Playhouse – Santa Rosa, CA
Hamlet’s Orphans – “… a very original take on what it means for many to be a kid in today’s world. It isn’t always pretty, either. As a matter of fact, you may find it very upsetting.”
Honorable Mention – Becky Shaw
Sonoma Theatre Alliance – Sonoma, CA
Dracula – “…succeeded in transporting me to another time and place, and their talent and commitment got me to buy into the fantastical premise. Fans of good community theatre should take note and consider attending. This is how it’s done.”
Honorable Mention – Alice: The Rebellion in Wonderland
Spreckels Theatre Company – Rohnert Park, CA
Annie Get Your Gun – “…a great show with which to introduce a younger generation to the joys of live musical theatre.” “… a terrifically entertaining piece of Americana and well worth your consideration…”
Honorable Mention – Guys and Dolls
As I said, lots of good theatre being done in Sonoma County. “But what about the ‘not-so-good’ (bad) theatre? “, you say. Again, here’s where the quantity of productions mounted in the county comes into play. With as many theatre companies producing as many shows as they do, there are bound to be a few “clunkers” in the mix. I know that most people expect a “worst of” list to accompany a “best of” list, and I’ll admit to the guilty pleasure of reading them as much as anyone. Did I see any “bad” shows this year? Yep. Do I feel the need to rehash those less-than-satisfying experiences? Nope. Why not?
As an active participant in the local theatre community, I know that no one ever sets out to do a bad show and, contrary to the belief of some, I take no pleasure in writing a “bad” review. I know the challenges of producing quality theatre – the limited talent pool, the financial constraints, the shrinking audience. I go into each show hoping for the best, and occasionally find myself disappointed. But if I see a show, I review it, and if I review a show, I’d like to think that I review it honestly and fairly.
So if you’d like to know what I think didn’t work this year, you’ll have to go back and parse through my reviews (or you could always just ask me.) I’d rather just take this time to congratulate all the local theatre companies on making the effort, acknowledge the best of their endeavors, and encourage them to continue.
Am I going soft? Nah. Don’t worry. I’ll be back pissing people off in no time…
Happy New Year!