The theater gods, though not entirely appeased this year, were remarkably evenhanded toward the county's larger companies and venues. They smiled almost equally on the Laguna Playhouse and the Orange County Performing Arts Center when it came to musical theater; and they not only took the curse off Shakespeare at South Coast Repertory, but also blessed the Bard at the Irvine Barclay Theatre. The shows that follow are listed in order of enjoyment.
1. "Company," Laguna Playhouse's Moulton Theater (October). This was the single most satisfying musical production of 1996. The staging touched a deep nerve with its hugely entertaining treatment of married life as lived rather than wished. It was sophisticated, satirical and yet affecting. The show suggested that while marital relationships might be overtaken by cynicism or disappointment, boredom or infidelity--all laid out for our delectation by a biting score in wittily sketched scenes--the characters shared an ambiguous but oddly certain triumph over desperation and compromise.
2. "As You Like It," Irvine Barclay Theatre (May). This stylish import, a traveling show from Glendale performed by A Noise Within, gave us Shakespeare the pure poet and philosopher. Mounted on a spare stage, the show's silky elegance and radiant acting were a match for the precision and clarity of the language. The luminous quality of this comic meditation on young love owed more to the imaginative deployment of the cast than to production values.
3. "The Taming of the Shrew," South Coast Repertory Mainstage (March). The Bard again, skewed to a deliciously rakish angle. More than colorful, it was outlandish: a big, broad, Italian vaudeville pastiche designed to the nines. The production was the epitome of "concept" theater, a rarity at SCR, with the battle of the sexes between Kate and Petruchio going so far over the top that the show could have been described as "The Godfather" meets "Guys and Dolls."
4. "Wake Up and Smell the Coffee," Irvine Barclay (January). Eric Bogosian's one-man show offered something better than a caffeine high. As a performer who detests the thought of being taken for an entertainment hors d'oeuvre, Bogosian pulled out the stops with his impersonations and gave us the main dish. His characters from all walks of society composed a nonstop tirade against hypocrisy that paid homage to Lenny Bruce, Lord Buckley, Paul Krassner and Abbie Hoffman rolled into one.
5. "Carousel," Orange County Performing Arts Center (September). Like "Company," the national touring production of this Rodgers and Hammerstein musical strove for the sort of depth not usually associated with Broadway entertainment. Here again the production's creators took a fresh look at dark material and drew from it what might be called musical tragedy. Unfortunately, the ardor between the young lovers Billy and Julie too often seemed less than apparent, diminishing the poignancy not just of their relationship but also of "Carousel's" impact as a whole.
6. "Collected Stories," SCR Second Stage (November). The pleasure of experiencing this new play was not so much a function of the highly touted intellectual issues raised in Donald Marguiles' literate script but rather the dramatic conflict fleshed out onstage by the engaging performances from Kandis Chappell and Suzanne Cryer in a superbly realistic production.
7. "Six Degrees of Separation," SCR Mainstage (October). Ably played and mounted, this revival stacked up very nicely against the Lincoln Center Theater original, highlighting the compact nature of the play. In terms of the intergenerational humor, moreover, it was funnier and brought to bear many more telling details.
8. "An Ideal Husband," SCR Mainstage (September) and "Arms and the Man," SCR Mainstage (June). Both productions represented what the county's only professional resident theater often does best: remounting full-dress versions of British classics. Oscar Wilde's "An Ideal Husband" had the advantage of being less familiar than Shaw's "Arms and the Man," but they gave equivalent, full-bodied value.
9. "Radio Mambo," SCR Second Stage (July). Culture Clash, the Latino performance troupe, wrapped everything you ever wanted to know about Miami, and maybe more, into this snappy package. The smartly directed performers came up with a funny, graceful, often serious look at a region not unlike Southern California in its transformation by Spanish-speaking refugees from poverty and political repression.
10. "Rumors," Laguna Playhouse Moulton Theater (June). This was a winning treatment of the old-fashioned laughs struck by Neil Simon in a farcical comedy. The byzantine machinations of the plot also had the added fillip of commenting obliquely on county politics.