The year in theater: A time of struggle but with enough brilliance to sustain us

A seated woman, a smiling man, and a woman and man facing each other on a colorful background
From left Merle Dandridge in “A Little Night Music,” Alex Edelman’s ”Just For Us” and Joshua Bitton and Erika Soto in William Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing.”
(Illustration by Jess Hutchison / Los Angeles Times; photographs by Jeff Lorch; Matthew Murphy; Craig Schwartz)

For Los Angeles theater, 2023 was a year of exuberant celebration and deepening gloom.

On the bright side, Pasadena Playhouse, under the inspired leadership of producing artistic director Danny Feldman, won the Regional Theatre Tony Award. And two artists of color were appointed artistic directors of the two most prominent theaters in the city — Snehal Desai for Center Theatre Group and Tarell Alvin McCraney for the Geffen Playhouse.

Our critics and reporters select their favorite TV shows, movies, albums, songs, books, theater, art shows and video games of the year.

But a persistent drip of bad news put a damper on the jubilation. Theater attendance stubbornly refused to return to pre-pandemic levels, inflicting chaos on theater budgets here and everywhere. The nonprofit theater world collectively gasped when CTG announced that it was suspending programming at the Mark Taper Forum until it got its financial house in order.

Larissa FastHorse’s new play, “Fake It Until You Make It,” was set to go into production at the Taper when it was, in the playwright’s words, “effectively canceled.” Such a drastic step suggested the gravity of a problem that was hardly specific to a single institution.


When 2023 began to unfold, pandemic-induced art museum cancellations and postponements seemed to be behind us, as programming mostly caught up. Here are 10 memorable exhibitions from the year.

Dec. 5, 2023

Large and small venues alike were shrinking before our very eyes. Concern grew that the fabulous invalid, as the theater has long been dubbed, might be down for the count.

But brilliant work will not be denied. And there was enough of it to buoy our flagging morale.

The genius of Stephen Sondheim practically served as a rescue squad. Pasadena Playhouse’s Sondheim Celebration, a six-month festival in honor of the man who brought the Broadway musical into the modern era, offered a treasure chest of Sondheim jewels, including superb mainstage productions of “Sunday in the Park With George” and “A Little Night Music.”

A woman holding a baby and a man with his arms around a younger woman, all looking up in fear
Stephanie J. Block, Sebastian Arcelus and Katy Geraghty in “Into the Woods” at the Ahmanson Theatre.
(Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman)

But there were other extraordinary Sondheim offerings beyond this festival, including the rapturous Broadway revival of “Into the Woods” at the Ahmanson Theatre and “Everybody Rise! A Sondheim Celebration” featuring an all-star lineup at the Hollywood Bowl. On Broadway, a fine “Sweeney Todd” and a “Merrily We Roll Along” for the ages have been helping us better appreciate the riches the maestro left us since his death in 2021.


Shakespeare appears twice on my list. The Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles reanimated the magic of “The Tempest” in an interactive staging that made the poignant romance seem the product of our own age. And at A Noise Within, an updated take on “Much Ado About Nothing” made the comedy seem not only accessible but evergreen.

Laser-sharp productions of recent plays raised the bar for play-going this year — among them, Will Arbery’s “Heroes of the Fourth Turning,” a Rogue Machine offering at the Matrix Theatre; Adam Rapp’s “The Sound Inside” at Pasadena Playhouse; and Lucas Hnath’s “The Thin Place” in an Echo Theater Company production at Atwater Village Theatre. Luis Alfaro’s “The Travelers,” a Latino Theater Company presentation at the Los Angeles Theatre Center, provided necessary spiritual medicine for a world perpetually coming apart at the seams.

A seated man leans toward a woman seated next to him on a porch
Evangeline Edwards and Samuel Garnett in Rogue Machine’s production of “Heroes of the Fourth Turning.”
(John Perrin Flynn)

Let’s take a moment to acknowledge the outstanding work of Guillermo Cienfuegos, who directed both “Much Ado About Nothing” at A Noise Within and “Heroes of the Fourth Turning” for Rogue Machine Theatre, where he serves as artistic director. He has been enriching Los Angeles’ theater culture for so long with stagings that are as muscular as they are delicately nuanced that it’s astonishing to remember that Cienfuegos is a directorial pseudonym. Hollywood knows him as Alex Fernandez, an accomplished actor. Whatever name he goes by, he’s become indispensable.

And while I’m singling out exceptional talent, let me praise once again Merle Dandridge for her radiant star turn in “A Little Night Music” at Pasadena Playhouse and Edwin Lee Gibson for his shambling brilliance as comedian Stepin Fetchit in “Fetch Clay, Make Man” at the Kirk Douglas Theatre. The entire cast of Lear deBessonet’s revival of “Into the Woods” at the Ahmanson was first-rate, but I can’t resist once more extolling the virtues of Stephanie J. Block as the Baker’s Wife, Katy Geraghty as Little Red Ridinghood and Gavin Creel as Cinderella’s Prince and the Wolf.


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Dec. 4, 2023

There’s nothing quite as thrilling as a winning wild card. Aaron Posner’s “Life Sucks,” in an Interact Theatre Company production at the Broadwater Main Stage frolicsomely directed by Barry Heins, turns Anton Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” into a giddy existential romp. And Alex Edelman’s solo comedy show “Just for Us” made the Jewish comic’s experience of being surrounded by neo-Nazis at once hilarious and politically eye-opening.

My New York theatergoing brought its share of riches. James Ijames’ “Fat Ham” at Broadway’s American Airlines Theatre and Annie Baker’s “Infinite Life” at the Atlantic Theatre Company’s Linda Gross Theater are the plays I’m most eager to see in Los Angeles. The Geffen Playhouse is fortunately presenting the Broadway production of “Fat Ham” in the spring. But when will Baker, perhaps the most influential dramatist of her generation, receive her due here?

Two Broadway revivals stand out. Michael Arden’s production of “Parade” (starring Ben Platt) met the formidable challenge of Jason Robert Brown and Alfred Uhry’s musical about a historic miscarriage of justice. And Kenny Leon made “Purlie Victorious: A Non-Confederate Romp Through the Cotton Patch,” Ossie Davis’ 1961 satirical farce, seem as though it were written expressly for us.

Yes, this was a tremendously difficult year for theater institutions. But these highlights reassure us that the art form will continue to find, against all odds, ways to thrive.

In alphabetical order, here are my nine top Los Angeles theater offerings for 2023.

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Dec. 6, 2023

‘Heroes of the Fourth Turning,” Matrix Theatre. Will Arbery’s play about a group of young religious conservatives fearlessly delved into the right-wing battle zone of white identity in a Rogue Machine production directed by Guillermo Cienfuegos that gave hard-right ideology a human face and recognizable psychological lineaments.

“Just for Us,” Mark Taper Forum. Alex Edelman, a Jewish comic, walked into a lair of neo-Nazis and lived to tell his hilariously funny and politically disturbing tale about the festering swamp of hate in America.

A woman stands behind a seated man with other people behind them on a couch in shadow.
John Ross Bowie and Anne Gee Byrd star in the Interact Theatre Company’s production of “Life Sucks” by Aaron Posner.
(Jason Niedle)

“Life Sucks,” Broadwater Main Stage. Aaron Posner’s playful update of Anton Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” was brought to life by a delectably versatile ensemble directed by Barry Heins in an Interact Theatre Company production that confronted both the legitimate despair and ennobling perseverance of its characters.

A woman in a floral-print dress tells a uniformed man to talk to the hand
Erika Soto and Joshua Bitton in Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing” at A Noise Within.
(Craig Schwartz)

“Much Ado About Nothing,” A Noise Within. In Cienfuegos’ production, Shakespeare’s romantic comedy was relocated to World War II Sicily, giving the battle of wits between Beatrice (Erika Soto) and Benedick (Joshua Bitton) permission to jitterbug in a staging so confidently stylish that the play’s amorous flame was joyously reignited.


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Dec. 5, 2023

Sondheim, Pasadena Playhouse, Ahmanson Theatre, Hollywood Bowl. Yes, I’m cheating, combining four productions — “Sunday in the Park With George” and “A Little Night Music” at Pasadena Playhouse, “Into the Woods” at the Ahmanson and “Everybody Rise! A Sondheim Celebration” at the Hollywood Bowl — into a single item. But make no mistake: This abundance of Sondheim was manna in a lean theatrical year.

A man and a woman stand on opposite sides of a desk onstage, looking toward the audience
Anders Keith and Amy Brenneman in Adam Rapp’s “The Sound Inside” at Pasadena Playhouse.
( Mike Palma)

“The Sound Inside,” Pasadena Playhouse. Amy Brenneman delivered one of the finest performances of the year, playing a Yale creative writing professor facing a terminal cancer diagnosis in this two-hander by Adam Rapp that spun a spiderweb around the creative act. Cameron Watson’s suspenseful production, which also starred Anders Keith, left its audience transfixed.

Two actors onstage, one holding a staff, one made up as a sprite
Jin Maley, left, as Ariel and Chris Butler as Prospero in Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles’ production of “The Tempest.”
( Brian Hashimoto)

“The Tempest,” The Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles. Artistic director Ben Donenberg’s innovative production, a collaboration with After Hours Theatre Company, began in a fully immersive fashion as audience members boarded a ship. But the revival found its true enchantment by streamlining Shakespeare’s dramatic poem for a cast that beautifully reflected the mosaic of contemporary Los Angeles.

A woman with her face illuminated by the light from a computer screen
Caitlin Zambito in the Echo Theater Company’s production of Lucas Hnath’s “The Thin Place.”
(OddDog Pictures)

“The Thin Place,” Atwater Village Theatre. Echo Theater Company’s production of Lucas Hnath’s occult drama, which tests the line between the living and the dead, was staged by Abigail Deser with such dexterity and inventiveness that idiosyncratic theater felt as deeply mystical and otherworldly as a seance.

A person taking a bath looks up at a man sitting on the edge of the tub with his feet in it
Ogie Zulueta, left, and Kinan Valdez in “The Travelers” by Luis Alfaro at Los Angeles Theatre Center.
(Jay Yamada)

“The Travelers,” Los Angeles Theatre Center. Set in a California monastery, Luis Alfaro’s drama, presented by Latino Theater Company in association with San Francisco’s Magic Theatre and Campo Santo, follows a band of brothers from an ancient religious order that is confronting economic extinction. A tale of survival in an era of spiraling calamity, the production bestowed spiritual renewal for an audience as weary from chaos and destruction as the play’s characters.