Best of 2011 in Theater: Charles McNulty

Despite all the evidence to the contrary, bigger is still often mistaken for better in the theater. One would have thought that the colossal debacle known as “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark,” which finally had its official opening in June, would have settled the matter, but the show continues to draw crowds even after all the bad press and withering pans.

Still, this season is memorable less for its grandiose spectacles than for its smaller offbeat offerings, of which there has been an unusual bounty. Mind you, not all the blockbusters were train wrecks. The daft cleverness of “The Book of Mormon” ebulliently demonstrates that large-scale concoctions needn’t always spring from generic imaginations.

But much of the best work of 2011 flew under the radar. The play that made the biggest impression on me was Annie Baker’s “Circle Mirror Transformation” at South Coast Repertory. Unfolding as a series of creative drama workshop exercises, this sprightly, seemingly improvisational piece isn’t the kind of ponderous, throat-clearing effort that nabs Tonys or a Pulitzer. It does, however, restore faith, as did Melissa James Gibson’s “This” at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, that original dramatists are breaking through a system that has been by and large stacked against them.

This is why any year that twice brings the loopy Austin, Texas-based troupe Rude Mechs and the disarmingly unconventional British writer and performer Tim Crouch to Los Angeles has to be considered a banner one. Radar L.A., the inaugural international theater festival that turned downtown L.A. (and select outposts) into a zone of groundbreaking performances in June, helped consolidate this innovative energy with a lineup that included the Rude Mechs’ “The Method Gun” at the Kirk Douglas, where the group’s freewheeling western musical, “I’ve Never Been So Happy,” and Crouch’s “The Author” were also produced. (Nice to see the Douglas intermittently coming alive in 2011, but is there any way to resuscitate Center Theatre Group’s flagship space, the Mark Taper Forum, which seems so resistant to taking risks these days?)


Again and again it was work that strayed from the beaten path — Psittacus Productions’ electrically flamboyant “Cyclops: A Rock Opera,” the Aristotle portion of David Greenspan’s “Poetics and Plays” — that galvanized theatergoers, at least those adventurous enough to seek out such nontraditional fare. Steve Yockey’s bouncy retelling of the myth of the Minotaur, “Heavier Than…,” may not have been vying for a place in the canon, but it received such a lively production at the Theatre @ Boston Court that it brought a disproportionate amount of delight for its scope.

The same could be said for Guy Hollingworth’s “The Expert at the Card Table,” which Neil Patrick Harris directed at the Broad Stage’s Edye, an occasion for such mesmerizing legerdemain that I’m still marveling at the cardsharp magic. (Here was a summer sleeper that made those in attendance feel like they had just been dealt three aces.) And nothing this year better exemplifies the concentrated power of bantamweight drama than “Blackbird,” a two-hander by David Harrower at Rogue Machine that was more resonant than productions 10 times its size.

Happily, my theater highlights could easily have been twice as long as the accompanying list. My biggest regret is that some of the most inventive offerings, such as Crouch’s “England” at the Skirball Cultural Center, were seen by only a select few. Let’s hope this encourages all of us to be a bit more daring in our theatergoing for 2012.