The best thing about being a superior theater troupe is that, over the years, your patrons come to expect innovation, creativity, quality and excellence—and word spreads. The worst thing about being a superior theater troupe? The very same thing, of course. Once high expectations are built, the easier it is to disappoint people.
Here are my top five theatrical disappointments of 2011.
'Tales of the City' (A.C.T.) Armistead Maupin's celebrated chronicle of San Francisco in the 1970s is one of the best-loved books in the country. American Theater Conservatory is one of the finest companies on the planet. And Jeff Whitty (Avenue Q) is one of the funniest, sharpest playwrights working today. So how in the world did last June's musical adaptation of Tales turn into such a clunky, amorphous misfire? The show originally seemed on a surefire trajectory to Broadway. The result, wildly inconsistent and mostly bland and uninvolved, was easily my biggest disappoint of the 2011 theatrical season.
'Bellwether' (Marin Theatre Company) Some shows are a victim of their own good advertising. Marin Theatre Company's Bellwether, by Steve Yockey, was promoted as a "fairy tale for adults," with hinted-at promises of an Orphean odyssey to the underworld. Fascinating in its concept—a little girl disappears from her picture-perfect neighborhood, and all hell breaks loose—the play sounded so good. And in the end, it was only . . . interesting.
'Ring of Fire' (Sixth Street Playhouse) After kick-starting a local trend with the superb Always . . . Patsy Cline and its energetic follow-up Hank Williams: Lost Highway, Sixth Street Playhouse stumbled with the incoherently scripted Johnny Cash tribute Ring of Fire. Though gamely performed by a talented cast, the show suffered in comparison to its much better predecessors.
'Macbeth' (Marin Shakespeare Company) Shakespeare's brilliant horror story, so rich with compelling characters, was reduced to a silly, mostly ridiculous cartoon, complete with bafflingly comical "spirits" rolling their eyes and making hilarious (not scary) faces as they popped up all over the stage. Some good acting was wasted on this goofy, misguided trifle.
'Kite's Book' (Sixth Street Playhouse) Rewrite, rewrite, rewrite. After being seduced by promises of a rousing, swashbuckling romance, those are the words I found myself chanting silently as I watched Sixth Street Playhouse's not-ready-for-opening-night drama about highwaymen and corrupt politicians. Though writer Robert Caisley has some fine ideas to explore here, the play needs much more work, and plenty of trimming, before it's ready to ride again.
Next week: top five plays of the year!