Dec. 29 2010 10:42 AM

Setting the record straight on local theater in 2010

A scene from Sweeny Todd
Photo by Darren Scott
San Diego theater had its ups and downs in 2010, which isn't to say the year was all that typical. The ups were really up—one troupe put on the greatest show in the history of the universe; Ion Theatre Company pulled its ass off the street (again) and found a permanent home; and The Old Globe Theatre, the city's oldest theater and the eighth largest in the country, celebrated its 75th anniversary, with lots of new construction as a backdrop. Solemnity made the rounds, too, fueled by a slate of crappy shows, the April 3 passing of Globe founder R. Craig Noel and the sudden Dec. 4 death of acclaimed local performer Sandra Ellis-Troy.

But I'm not here to talk about sad stuff. The end of 2010, see, marks the inaugural Marty Awards, CityBeat's definitive nod to the year's best work and performers on local stages. The list, culled from attendance at about 120 shows, was a lot of fun to compile, and I hope that registers with you. If not, I heartily invite you to a rousing game of darts at a time of your choosing—just stand directly in front of the board and face your opponent. Easy, huh?

Best Set Design: Several elements didn't quite jibe in La Jolla Playhouse's fair A Midsummer Night's Dream from last summer, but you couldn't have proven it by the work of Neil Patel, who scores the Marty for Best Set Design. Patel's Victorian meeting room literally turned upside down (including the grand piano and the fireplace) to reveal the enchanted forest in which Hermia and Lysander's romantic dream takes place, with its trees fashioned from chandeliers and its billowy clouds from pristine white curtains. Just as people assume characters in a show, so do the best sets—and when it came to Midsummer, this one played the lead.

Best Costumer: With profuse apologies to Lamb's Players Theatre's Jeanne Reith, the pre-eminent costume designer in the solar system, I must cheerfully bestow this year's Best Costumer award on Deirdre Clancy, who dressed the three Old Globe Summer Shakespeare Festival shows. The coolest of Clancy's lot was probably the gown she whipped up for Goneril (played by an excellent Emily Swallow), jutjawed daughter of doddering, lovelorn King Lear. In any event, she showed us that costuming is every bit about draping the character's body while revealing what's inside his/her head and heart, an exceptionally difficult balancing act.

Lifetime Achievement: When it comes to longevity in local theater, one practitioner stands out: D.J. Sullivan. Sullivan, founder of The Sullivan Players and D. J. Sullivan Workshop and recipient of the first Lifetime Achievement Marty, has been directing and coaching actors and other directors for more than 40 years around here, numbering Christian Hoff (Jersey Boys) and Oscar nominee Annette Bening (American Beauty) among her students and General Hospital and Dallas among her acting credits. San Diego's theater community loves Sullivan deeply and intensely, and no wonder. It's hard to stay mad at somebody who's apparently never bothered to frown.

Best Male Actor: I literally couldn't decide on one Best Male Actor, so I chicken-shat my way out by declaring a tie in this category. Sean Cox and Phil Johnson will have to fight over the honor, Cox for his splendid portrayal of the fatally conflicted John Proctor in last month's The Crucible, the Salem witch trial dramatization co-produced by MOXIE Theatre and Intrepid Shakespeare Company, and Johnson for his over-the-top turn as wild-eyed Vice Principal Panch in North Coast Repertory Theatre's oft-extended The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee from last summer, centering on a handful of dysfunctional wannabe champion spellers. Let the games begin.

Best Female Actor: You guessed it—the award for Best Female Actor caused me the same problem. That's because Monique Gaffney and Deborah Gilmour Smyth were so superb in their respective shows, Gaffney as the battle-hardened Berniece in Cygnet Theatre Company's The Piano Lesson in February and Smyth in April as the amorous Mrs. Lovett in Cygnet's Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Both roles are built around a loony central character—and while Berniece angrily stands up to hers (in the person of a sociopathic brother), Lovett blithely fuels her would-be lover's murderous insanity. They may thus be polar opposites, but both women were painstakingly and singularly on target in their assignments.

Best Director: An e-mailer's recent question reminded me that the use of the stage as a character-building tool is one of the most vital, and most overlooked, weapons in a director's arsenal. That's the basis on which I name Ion Theatre Company's Kim Strassburger the Best Director recipient for 2010. Ion's stage is about the size of my bathroom floor—but Strassburger got the most out of the space with an exceptionally lean, logistical blueprint for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Add lots of firstrate coaching, and she cops the gold. No word on whether Ion's staging a revival in my bathroom anytime soon.

Best Show: Immediately after Cygnet Theatre Company's opening-night performance of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street let out last spring, I predicted that the show would be extended about 6 million years. Less than 48 hours later came the fateful e-mail announcing a two-weekend hold-over for what's likely the best non-cabaret musical I've ever seen. The 2010 Marty for Best Show must necessarily go to this unspeakably splendid piece about a crazed barber who exacts revenge on a bunch of people; it was as fluid a blend of fulsome Stephen Sondheim fare and fantastical Hugh Wheeler story as you'll find, anywhere, ever. Ever. Sean Murray and James Vasquez directed a show in which everything was across the street from everything else. This one is the standard by which all future Cygnet shows will be judged.

Well, that's about all we have time for this year, folks. Theater is the living library of the stories that tell us about ourselves and just what the hell we think we're doing here—so if you saw any of the above, I hope your outing inspired you to take in more shows in 2011. Those of you who followed my advice and actually stood in front of that live dartboard are, of course, exempt.

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