Curtains on 2016

SN&R theater critics share their favorite moments of the year

Let’s raise a toast to <i>August: Osage County.</i>

Let’s raise a toast to August: Osage County.

Photo courtesy of charr crail

Many people probably think being a theater critic is a cushy dream gig—all those smart, funny and interesting plays! SN&R’s theater critics know better, however. Sure, it’s a great job if you can get it—but one that requires a real dedication (for starters, your evening weekend plans are pretty much set for infinity), critical thinking chops and the willingness to sit through countless renditions of every Shakespeare play ever penned. Still, it also gives reviewers a front-row seat to the scene’s freshest theatrical debuts, rising stars and genre-busting productions. OK, maybe not such a bad gig after all. To that end, SN&R’s rotating cast of critics share their favorite shows, actors and moments of the last 12 months.

Edgy, excellent and touching

Best professional theater company: Capital Stage, which in the past year gave us the impressively ambitious August: Osage County, the tremendously touching Blackberry Winter and the outrageously prescient The Totalitarians.

Best community theater company: Big Idea Theatre, where edgy and artful live and Shakespeare thrives. This year’s sterling offerings included The Motherf**ker With the Hat, A Bright New Boise, Trevor and Antony & Cleopatra.

Most ambitious arts endeavor: Capital Dance Project, conceived by members of the Sacramento Ballet in 2015 as an outlet for creative expression, made great bounds in just one year. Its 2016 summer program paired choreographers and dancers with local musicians, videographers and other visual artists for a passionate multimedia exploration of the creative process.

Most impressive actors: The city’s full of excellent actors, but these were some of those who delivered the best performances of 2016: Janis Stevens, Amy Resnick, Jamie Jones, Elisabeth Nunziato, Jason Kuykendall, John Lamb, Dave Pierini and Kurt Johnson (all, except Stevens, are among the B Street Theatre acting company).

Outstanding student of the way we are: Dancer-choreographer Pamela Trokanski of Davis explores contemporary society through movement and spoken-word narrative. Her latest program, last month’s 8 Seconds, challenged audiences to use brainpower to consider our shrinking attention spans, our difficulty in focusing and how we might manage the two.


Heart-stopping immediacy and other high points

Less is very much more: Davis Shakespeare Festival, Romeo and Juliet. Lean and limber, this “minimalist” production (just a few props, gloomy lighting) brought urgency and heart-stopping immediacy to this familiar tragic tale. Davis Shakespeare is a group to watch.

Wonderful dysfunction: Capital Stage, August: Osage County: Capital Stage had a lot of good shows this year, but this one was the best: a lengthy drama about a dysfunctional family, brimming with vivid scenes and combative dialogue, with excellent direction by Ben Ismail and a standout performance by Janis Stevens as the family matriarch.

Bravo, bravura: Harry Harris in Capital Stage’s How to Use a Knife: A bravura performance as a nervy chef (who’s had problems with substance abuse) trying to pull his life together working in a high-pressure kitchen environment at a less-than-stellar restaurant.

Monster energy: B Street Theatre Family Series’ Frankenstein: Though theoretically geared for a teen-and-tween audience, playwright Jerry Montoya’s perceptive and scary adaptation of Mary Shelley’s pioneering novel really hit the target and captured the attention of adults as well.

Jazzed: B Street Theatre’s Satchmo at the Waldorf: A fine performance by visiting actor Jahi Kearse playing jazz great Louis Armstrong, faced with old age and declining health. Armstrong biographer Terry Teachout’s script dug into the musician’s frustrations and regrets, in addition to celebrating high points of his remarkable career.


The surreal world

Best Word-of-the-Year theater: Meriam-Webster picked “surreal” as its word of the year, which also best describes the edgy, provocative work of Big Idea Theatre, which had two of the best overall shows of 2016: Trevor and Motherf**er With the Hat.

Best twosome: Explosive performances both solo and in the interplay with each other: actors Tory Scroggins and Brooklynn Solomon as a streetwise and street-working couple in Celebration Arts’ Sunset Baby.

Best Satchmo solo: Actor Jahi Kearse completely embodied world-renowned African-American jazz trumpeter, composer, singer and performer Louis Armstrong through five historic decades in B Street’s impressive production of playwright Terry Teachout’s excellent Satchmo at the Waldorf.

Best production that put fun in dysfunctional: Capital Stage’s August: Osage County brought together a stellar cast, strong direction and great production values for this disturbing, yet amusing-at-times, peak into creepy, unsettling family dynamics.

Best whirl in the theater world: In 2016 the talented, and must-be-thoroughly-exhausted, Benjamin Ismail ping-ponged between theaters, his roles in theater productions, and even states (with work in Florida). Locally, he was artistic director at Big Idea Theatre, a masterful director of Capital Stage’s August: Osage County and Big Idea’s Antony & Cleopatra, his current fun run acting as an elf in Capital Stage’s production of Santaland Diaries, and director of Sacramento Theatre Company’s Driving Miss Daisy.


The fun, the heavy and the riveting

War, and other stories: Gospel According to First Squad is the very powerful third in Tom Burmester’s “War Cycle,” which attempts to show the effects of war on the combatants and their families. It was presented by UC Davis and deserved a broader audience.

Classic, revisited: The Davis Musical Theater Company has grown a lot in its 30-plus year history and its recent Music Man was excellent, with one of the best Harold Hills I’ve seen (Richard Wall, in his DMTC debut).

Once more, with feeling: The DMTC also produced a superlative Man of La Mancha, with a magnificent set and professional quality cast.

Summer dreamin’: Bells are Ringing, part of the Davis Shakespeare Ensemble’s summer festival reminded us how good the old musicals are, and had the quintessential musical comedy couple in Gia Battista and Ian Hopps.

She stands alone: Capital Stage’s Blackberry Winter was a tour de force one woman show about the effects of Alzheimer’s disease on an adult daughter. Amy Resnick gave a riveting performance that was both heartbreaking and funny at the same time.