Musicality paired with humorous to poignant questions about sexuality and gender mark the most creative people, best places and coolest events of 2011 for San Francisco theater and opera.
Robert Lepage is the writer and producer of Cirque du Soleil’s “Totem,” which played in the Grand Chapiteau in San Francisco. Lepage’s state-of-the-art creation of “Totem” pays a dazzling homage to human achievement and clean water as a source of life, and shows how Cirque du Soleil has evolved into a higher art form, both physically and spiritually.
Lepage also wrote, choreographed and performed in the dramatic dance-theater hybrid “Eonnagata” at Berkeley last winter. Based on the true story of a French diplomat who was obligated to live half his life as a woman and half as a man, Eonnagata is a story about tortured souls trapped in both body and circumstance.
Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City
San Francisco-based writer Armistead Maupin brought his beloved Tales of the City to life with his stories of the counterculture in the 1970s, turning American Conservatory Theater into a swinging roller disco party as the characters find love and self-discovery in their new home.
Xerxes by Handel
San Francisco Opera played lightheartedly with gender in the romantic Baroque farce Xerxes by Handel. The 1738 opera set in Persia finally debuted in San Francisco this fall with 6-foot mezzo soprano Susan Graham as the king. Countertenor David Daniels sang the role of the brother, whose beloved the king coveted.
Mountain Play’s Hairspray
Looking less at gender and more at race and class, the Mountain Play put on Hairspray this summer, with a chubby working class white girl who lobbies her 1960s high school for integration after she has fun dancing with African Americans. The original character was first played by current “Dancing with the Stars’” finalist, Ricki Lake. Who wouldn’t want to dance and sing in this spectacular stone amphitheater on Mount Tamalpais?
UC Berekeley hosted the dynamic and Christian-spiritual African American dance troupe Alvin Ailey once again with an energized premiere of the piece “Anointed” that uplifted the soul.
American Conservatory Theater off Union Square in San Francisco burned down the house with Clybourne Park, a scorching comedy about race and real estate. Clybourne Park is the story of an embittered father of a young war veteran who returns home and commits suicide. The father sells the house, located in a white neighborhood, in the 1960s. A nice, young African American couple move in, and by the 1990s the house is a graffiti-marred tear-down in a blighted area.
Avenue Q at the Orpheum as part of SHN’s Broadway musical series, was right up the alley of those who can live with Sesame Street characters for adults, complete with a sex scene. It’s a humorous look at how a recent graduate copes with being poor and living in a ghetto, featuring songs such as “What Do You Do with a BA in English?” and “It Sucks to be Me.”
Shana Cooper’s Taming of the Shrew
Shana Cooper’s shrewd direction at Cal Shakes with her Taming of the Shrew packed a punch. Cooper had the audience wanting to see it again before ever exiting the theater. She showed a gift for combustible casting in this tale of two sisters with only one parent. One girl turns out to be a tomboy misfit and the other a beauty queen and daddy’s girl who may only accept a marriage proposal if her sister has one. Danny Scheie, a Cal Ph.D, delivered an excellent performance with his Shakespearean dialogue performed with a Bronx accent. Cal Shakes itself is nestled in a serene amphitheater in the foothills of Mount Diablo, in Orinda, with a eucalyptus grove for picnicking under the lights.
Cindy Warner is a San Francisco Bay Area native. Cindy has covered SF theater and opera for Examiner.com via her bicycle since January 2009. Check out her work on Examiner.com.