Tuesday, May 30, 2006

SOB's Best of 2005-06: #1 - Theater Of The New Ear (Royce Hall, UCLA, Los Angeles, CA)

SOB’s Best of 2005-06: #1 – Theater Of The New Ear (Royce Hall, UCLA, Los Angeles, CA)

Any filmgoer who has watched in awe (or for the less fortunate, in exasperation) as one of gifted screenwriter Charlie Kaufman’s twisted movies unfolds -- usually inside-out, upside-down and sprinkled with a dash of surrealilty -- knows that his captivating storytelling is never dull. As movies like “Being John Malkovich” and the brilliant “Adaptation” demonstrate, the story lines are often grounded in some semblance of fact.

It was with this wild anticipation that I took in Theater Of The New Ear early last fall at UCLA’s Royce Hall. The performance’s TONE was set with the come-on, “Leave your eyes at home.” With a radio-like production quality, its cast members sat on an unadorned stage reading scripts of two “sound” plays as Foley artist Marko Costanzo magically transported the audience beyond the limits of their imaginations.

But with a stellar cast that included Jennifer Jason Leigh and Daniel Thewlis (together in "Anomalisa"), as well as Peter Dinklage, Hope Davis and Meryl Streep (together in "Hope Leaves The Theater"), it was foolhardy to even attempt diverting one’s eyes from the stage.

Because of the chance that these fascinating plays for the ear could be produced again for future audiences to enjoy, I’ll spare you all but the basic plotlines. Although your best bet for experiencing the performances may be on radio (Sirius had previously aired the production).

"Anomalisa" is essentially a story about a self-help guru (Thewlis) who travels to Ohio to speak before his legions of fans, only to get boozed up and entwined with a disfigured woman named Lisa (Jason Leigh) with whom he falls in love.

The lines of reality and fiction are blurred to their ultimate and most satisfying degree in "Hope Leaves The Theater." The title, of course, refers in part to Hope Davis, who -- like Dinklage and Streep -- portrays an assortment of characters including herself in an amazingly funny, nuanced romp. Part of the fun is seeing these immensely gifted actors also playing members of the audience, including Davis’ hilarious and self-obsessed Louise, whose ringing cell phone serves as the catalyst for Streep -- as Streep -- to go ballistic in a fashion that would make any regular theatregoer proud. This dizzying, frenetic play left me downright giddy and more than sufficiently underscores why Streep remains the preeminent actress of our times.

While Charlie Kaufman is credited for writing "Hope Leaves the Theater," “newcomer” Francis Fregoli is billed as the writer and director of "Anomalisa." However, it’s not beyond the stretch of the imagination to ponder whether Kaufman himself wrote and directed; after all, the program states that Fregoli "is the pen-name of an established writer, who wishes to remain anonymous." Right. And given the fact that Kaufman himself is proclaimed dead in "Hope Leaves The Theater," one can be forgiven for automatically making the assumption that our “deceased” playwright still revels in playing with his audience.

Whatever the case, the excellent Theater of the New Ear with music by Carter Burwell is an expertly-written and exceptionally-acted theatrical experience unlike any other. That’s why out of the 54 productions I saw over the past twelve months, I enthusiastically rank it as the singular Best Show of the 2005-06 Theatrical Season.

This is Steve On Broadway (SOB).

Related Stories:
SOB’s Best of 2005-06: #2 – Guys And Dolls (Piccadilly Theatre, London, UK) (May 26, 2006)
SOB’s Best of 2005-06: #3 – Hedda Gabler (Brooklyn Academy of Music – Harvey Theatre, New York, NY) (May 25, 2006)
SOB’s Best of 2005-06: #4 – A Blameless Life (Steppenwolf Garage, Chicago, IL) (May 24, 2006)
SOB’s Best of 2005-06: #5 – Reeling (The Children’s Theatre Company, Minneapolis, MN) (May 23, 2006)
SOB’s Best of 2005-06: #6 – “MASTER HAROLD”…And The Boys (Steppenwolf Theatre, Chicago, IL) (May 21, 2006)
SOB’s Best of 2005-06: #7 – Love Song (Steppenwolf Theatre, Chicago, IL) (May 19, 2006)
SOB's Best of 2005-06: #8 - Billy Elliot The Musical (Victoria Palace Theatre, London, UK) (May 18, 2006)
SOB's Best of 2005-06: #9 - The Well-Appointed Room (Steppenwolf Theatre, Chicago, IL) (May 17, 2006)
SOB's Best of 2005-06: #10 - Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (Eugene O'Neill Theatre, New York, NY) (May 15, 2006)
The SOB Five "Worst" of 2005-06 (May 12, 2006)
SOB's Best and Worst of 2005-06 Theatre Season (May 12, 2006)

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