‘Tis that time of year again where critics post their “Best of…”, “Top Ten…”, etc. lists and give artists and audiences something to argue about. I continue to resist that urge and instead offer something a little different. It’s awards season, so I thought I’d throw a few more out there post-Marquee Theater Journalists and Pre-SFBATCC Excellence in Theatre Awards. It was difficult enough coming up with names for the individual awards, so I didn’t bother with an overall name. Be my guest. Be nice.
“The NKOTB Award” – Redwood Theatre Company – This fairly new kid on the block consists of a group of college/theatre-minded friends who admiringly admit their need for continued growth and training as artists. Taking on roles they’d never stand a chance of getting in the local theatre community, their passion for theatre allows you to see past their sprayed-on grey hair and aging eyeglasses.
“The Persistence of Vision Award” – Pegasus Theatre Company – West County’s Pegasus Theatre continues its mission to entertain local audiences despite the continuing challenge of not having a consistent venue. As if being a vagabond company that performs in a variety of places from a Russian River-side park to the Graton Community Center isn’t challenging enough in maintaining an audience, Pegasus is going to fly in the face of standard theatrical practice by committing their upcoming season to all original works by local playwrights.
“The There’s No Business Like Show Business Award” – Spreckels Theatre Company – Musicals are the bread and butter of most theatre companies, regardless of whether they’re “community”, “regional”, “semi-professional” or “professional”. Big time musicals require big-time space, and Rohnert Park’s Spreckels Performing Arts Center is the best venue for musicals done on a large scale. A stage as large as its requires big talent to fill it and the Spreckels Theatre Company consistently brings the North Bay’s best musical talents (both on-stage and in the pit) to local audiences. Can you imagine something like Titanic – The Musical done anywhere else?
“The It Takes a Village Award” – The residents of Cloverdale – The community of Cloverdale has embraced its local theatre troupe and comes out in droves for the Cloverdale Performing Arts Center productions. (I wish they’d give themselves a company name other than the venue’s.) Artistic Director Yave Guzman schedules a variety of shows from Shakespeare to modern drama to family friendly theatre, so there’s something for everyone throughout their season. The CPAC, designed by 6th Street Playhouse designer Paul Gilger, is probably the best 99 seat and under house in the county. Consistency is often a challenge for community theatre, but the one thing I can say I see consistently at CPAC productions is a full house.
“The James Brown Hardest Working Man in Show Business Award” – David L. Yen – Mr. Yen must have coffee running through his veins with hands in at least six Sonoma County stage productions over the past year. Six may not sound like a lot, but half of those were performing and the other half directing. Moving from Henry Higgins to Chico Marx to Krumpet, a disgruntled Macy’s Christmastime employee is no mean feat. Add directing a suspense drama (Wait Until Dark), a farce (the very funny Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery) and an I-don’t-know-what-to-call-it (Peter and the Starcatcher) to the mix – with frequent overlaps – and you have the makings of a very tired theatre artist. This weariness may have caught up with him with Peter… (which is a lackluster show to begin with, but with which I had real casting and direction issues), but you have to hand it to a man who finishes up each year doing a two-hour one-man show in an elf costume.
“The Enrico Caruso Award” – Cinnabar Theater – Operas/Operettas have never been my cup of tea. I haven’t seen that many, and while I’ve actually enjoyed the ones I have, they’re never at the top of my list of things to see. I just like the idea that Sonoma County has that option with a theatre company that has the production of operatic works as part of its mission statement.
“The Jon & Kate plus 8 Award” – 6th Street Playhouse – For sheer volume of productions, no other local company can match Santa Rosa’s Railroad Square resident. With no less than twelve productions in 2016 split between their two performance spaces (plus staged readings, plus youth productions, plus special events, etc.), the lights never seem to be off at 53 W. 6th Street.
“The Punxsutawney Phil Award” – Roustabout Theater Company – Like the famed groundhog, Roustabout Theater’s professional component pops its collective head up once a year, sees an audience and does really, really good theater. Their production of When the Rain Stops Falling provided one of 2016’s most interesting nights of theatre.
“The Prodigal Son Award” – Argo Thompson – Ten years after his departure from 6th Street Playhouse and the Sonoma County theatre scene, Argo Thompson returned to start a new theatre company (though he connects it to the original Actors’ Theatre of Sonoma County on the Company web site, to the annoyance of some) dedicated to producing recent works not yet performed in Sonoma County. Left Edge Theatre’s first season was promising, their second season continues that promise. With a new, improved performance space and reduced ticket prices, Thompson and Left Edge have quickly becoming the go-to company for dynamic, contemporary theatre.
“The Little Engine That Could Award” – Main Stage West – Sitting on the corner of Highways 12 and 116 sits Sebastopol’s Main Stage West. Probably the most intimate of Sonoma County’s theaters, I am consistently impressed by what they manage to pack onto their tiny stage, both in talent and in set design. From dramas to comedies (their Bob: A Life in Five Acts was 2016’s best locally-produced comedy) to size-appropriate musicals, MSW offers their community a nice variety of shows. They’re also one of the few companies that does an audience-friendly ‘pay-what-you-will’ night throughout a show’s run and a theatre artist-friendly late Sunday matinee.
“The All the World’s a Stage Award” – SRJC Theatre Arts – I have never been one to bow down to the sentiment that Shakespeare is the be-all and end-all of theatre. Many theatre companies produce it because it’s a freebie (no royalties) and they’ll dress it up and “modernize” it in an attempt to make it relevant to contemporary audiences. I’ve grown weary of that. Hell, I’ve been in a few of those. Imagine my surprise at being captivated by a production that took the exact opposite approach. The Santa Rosa Junior College production of Twelfth Night done with ‘original practices’ (all-male casting, approximation of era-appropriate lighting and set design) was a revelation to me. It actually made me like Shakespeare again. Do it again, SRJC.
To my count, Sonoma County has at least twenty theatre companies, including educational institutions, actively and regularly mounting productions. Marin has six. Napa has two. I loathe the “everyone gets a prize” mindset that besets too many organizations these days so please don’t take a company or individual’s absence from this list as a slight. Circumstances limited my attendance this year and this is the first actual theatre-related writing I’ve done in over two months. It’s good to be back.
One concluding “End of Year” thought – While I think the reason for the oft-heard complaint from Artistic Directors that their shows aren’t selling is pretty evident, I have to say that both as an onstage performer and off-stage critic, I kind of like the fact that there is plenty of theatre around these parts. I just wish they would refrain from too-frequently opening on the same night and running concurrently.
Here’s to an entertaining and enlightening 2017.