Phew! What year ! What a two-year debacle, in fact.
It was heartbreaking, painful, depressing, anxiety-provoking and more. Oh, and more and more contagious lately.
Just as we were heading back to the theater… things aren’t looking so good for the gatherings inside. Sigh. Theater cancellations hit New York hard and started to be felt in San Diego at the end of the year.
2021 was sort of the reverse of 2020, which started off normally (whatever that means again), then March 2020 changed the world. In 2021, the theater was a home watch business, until the doors started to open and the live theater was re-established.
And then, just as we got used to the Delta variant, the masks and the vaxx and booster proof… Omicron struck with a vengeance, and the doors started to close again.
But along the rocky roller coaster there were productions to stream and shows to watch.
What was most impressive was the astounding ingenuity and creativity of the directors. As soon as we were all forced to be housebound, they started to find ways to entertain us.
And over the past couple of years, that entertainment has evolved in innovative ways: from home cabarets and Zoom readings to video performances and full movies. Plus, there was theater delivered right to our doorstep, complete with props or cover letters, phone calls, and other interactive opportunities.
Granted, most of us started to suffer from Zoom burnout, especially if work was experienced that way as well.
But some Zoom theater content has continued to be produced in inventive and compelling ways. (It was great, for example, when people figured out how to “cross the line” of those onscreen zoom areas and really make the artists look like they were in physical proximity).
Another good thing: no local theater troupe has gone bankrupt in the past two years (for now, fingers crossed). And a whole new theater company, Teatro San Diego, emerged, which was quite courageous in the midst of a pandemic.
Another thing that affected what we saw: After the Black Lives Matters movement really took off, over 300 BIPOC theater directors nationwide signed a letter, “We See You White American Theater”. And since then, there have been significantly more diverse plays, actors, directors and creative teams behind the scenes.
A particularly fun experience for me: the many filmed musicals we got to see, in addition to “Schmigadoon,” Apple TV’s flagship made-for-television series that hilariously parodied classic musicals.
From home, we were able to watch “In the Heights”, “Tick, Tick… Boom! “,” Dear Evan Hansen “,” Encanto “and soon,” West Side Story “.
Two musicals from San Diego were shot on stage with their original cast (as was “Hamilton”, the first of the exciting band to do so): “Come From Away” and “Diana, the Musical”, both of which featured started at the La Jolla Playhouse.
Surprisingly, in the midst of all the madness, I managed to see almost as much theater in 2021 as in a “normal” year: 190 theatrical productions, online and offline (very few of the latter), from San Diego and from across the United States and Europe. This was a bonus: by putting their offerings online, theaters could attract a much larger audience and promote their name and work nationwide. And the public could feast on very disparate offers.
When it came to putting together my list of the best of the year, I limited my choices to only San Diego productions – live, filmed, or the way they were presented. So here is my list of the best.
Best San Diego Shows of 2021
Big and small theater companies, and in no particular order:
“Hair” – The Old Globe. The first of many covers I’ve seen of the 1967 “Tribal Love-Rock Musical” which managed to accurately capture the wild, free energy and anxiety of the ’60s. Excellent cast, wonderfully directed by James Vásquez, resident artist at the Globe.
“The Garden” – La Jolla Playhouse. Another magical and lyrical piece by Charlayne Woodard (her fourth at the Playhouse), this one a mother-daughter of two (Woodard and Stéphanie Berry). A searing world premiere commissioned by the Playhouse, skillfully co-directed by Patricia McGregor and Delicia Turner Sonnenberg.
“The Drowning Girls” – OnStage Playhouse. A 1999 Canadian play based on a true story of a sociopathic killer in the early 20’s.e century in London, who murdered three of his young women in bathtubs. OSP Artistic Director James P. Darvas imaginatively produced an inventively designed production starring Emily Candia, Carla Navarro and Sandra Ruiz as the lovable and hapless victims.
“Ben Butler” – North Coast Repertory Theater. Outstanding piece (by Richard Strand) and ensemble superbly directed by NCRT Artistic Director David Ellenstein. A Civil War / Civil Rights story about an enigmatic, larger-than-life historical figure
“Witchland” – Renaissance of the court Theater Company. A creepy, creepy, funny and baffling play by early-stage playwright Tim Mulligan, mind-boggling staging by Andrew Oswald. A wonderfully executed live performance, frightening for those who have chosen to be immersed to the fullest.
“57 Chevy” – San Diego Repertory Theater. A new streamed production of a coming-of-age story with a stunning live performance from Culture Clash co-founder Ricardo Salinas (whom I first saw in 2019, as part of the Latinx Festival REP’s New Play), beautifully crafted (Christopher Scott Murillo), filmed (Tim Powell) and expertly co-directed (by Culture Clash fellow co-founder of Salinas, Herbert Sigüenza and Sam Woodhouse).
“Become Dr Ruth“ – Repertory theater of the north coast. A filmed performance by Mark St. Germain’s witty and poignant life story of fiery sex educator Dr.Ruth Westheimer brilliantly played by Emmy Award-winning Tovah Feldshuh, cleverly led by David Ellenstein, with setting delightfully detailed by Marty Burnett.
“The Top of the Mountain ”- The Roustabouts Theater Company. A filmed production of the 2009 Katori Hall Fantasy that aims to show the man behind the myth: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in his hotel room in Memphis the day before his assassination. Updated to include photos of today’s racial hotspots and issues, with two standout performances (Caiel Noble, Ashley Graham), touted as a mentoring experience for two young San Diego theater companies, including The American History Theater, whose artistic director, Kandace Crystal (a very busy woman last year), skillfully directed.
“Harlem Duo ” – Coronado Playhouse. A filmed and streamed production of a heartbreaking drama (by Canadian black playwright Djanet Sears) that has been called a prequel to “Othello”. It featured an inspired cast, muscularly led by Kandace Crystal. Taking place over three periods, from 1860 to 1997, the play traced the African-American history (personal and social) and the dying emotional journey of an abandoned woman.
More … two “outliers”
“Threshing man” – a continuous production of the American Repertory Theater and Company One Theater, co-presented by the San Diego Repertory Theater. A cool, hip and psychedelic piece of music about musical creation, police brutality, fame and friendship, privilege and cultural appropriation, and whose responsibility is to speak out against social injustice. Intense and unforgettable.
‘A thousand ways – of 600 Highwaymen via the La Jolla Playhouse, as part of their ongoing WOW (Without Walls) festival, which went live this year. Personal, intimate, immersive and extraordinary, this interactive first part of the series (the only one I participated in, since the second was in person, before I was ready for it), resulted in a phone call from a another spectator, a stranger. We never learned our names, but we had a warm, revealing and very satisfying guided and directed “conversation”. In short, but moving and profound.
Thinking back to 2021, there have been some outstanding individual performances (in addition to those mentioned above) and remarkable collaborative work that I would like to salute.
Exceptional performance of 2021
- Richard Baird, “Ben Butler”, North Coast Repertory Theater
- Bibi Mama, “The Mango Tree”, Moxie Theater
- Zuleyma Guevara, “Azul”, Diversionary theater
- Megan Carmitchel, “Beehive”, New Village Arts
- Daniel Gerroll, “Dr. Glass,” North Coast Repertory Theater
- Brooke Henderson, “Once On This Island,” Moonlight productions
Best sets of 2021
- “1221 Oceanfront: A Black Family Christmas” (new play by Dea Hurston) at New Village Arts.
- “A Cuban Christmas for the people ” (new play by Herbert Sigüenza) at OnStage Playhouse
- “Songs for a New World “ streaming from the new Teatro San Diego
- “You and me” streaming from Moxie Theater
- “Mother Road “ at the San Diego Repertory Theater
- “Witches’ Land ” in live from Renaissance backyard theater
So, even in the midst of disaster and distress, San Diegans managed to create an exciting and memorable theater.
Now that the pandemic situation is distressing and uncertain again (and even if it wasn’t), here are some trends that I hope will continue in theater in 2022 and beyond:
- Ongoing COVID precautions and protocols, including masks (everywhere) and showing evidence of being vaxxed AND boosted.
- Continuous broadcast. It is a new set of skills that many directors have developed; they might as well continue to use it. And it’s a great way for us to see what other theaters are doing, nationally and internationally.
- Continued production of short parts. Almost all of us suffer from the attention span of a pandemic (i.e. fleas on a hot plate). The 90-minute pieces without an intermission keep us more secure, and the short pieces keep our exhausted brains more focused.
- Diversity continues, on stage and behind the scenes. We need to continue to hear the voices and the stories that all too often (or maybe just once per theater season) are not being heard.
There is exciting work ahead in 2022. I hope we can all see and respond to it, as a community, together.
In the meantime, stay safe and healthy.
Let’s go for a healthy new year!
Pat Launer, member of the American Theater Critics Association, is a longtime San Diego art writer and Emmy Award-winning theater critic. An archive of his insights and reviews can be found at patlauner.com.