ASR Theater ~~ ASR’s Favorites of 2023

by Team ASR

2023 was a wonderful year for live theater in the Bay Area. Although many companies are still struggling financially, it’s clear that artistically most have bounced back from the pandemic. Rather than a “best of” list, here are ten of the past year’s favorites submitted by ASRians.

Dinner with Friends: In June, Sonoma Arts Live served up a Pulitzer Prize-winning treat. Director Carl Jordan had the perfect recipe for casting Ilana Niernberger, John Browning, Katie Kelley, and Jimmy Gagarin. Recipe?

The play’s friends are foodies, couples who uncouple and all but food fight on a multi-stage set by Jordan and Gary Gonser. The play had just the right amount of both relationships’ spice to flavor any postprandial discussion. — Cari Lynn Pace

Dragon Lady: Spanning most of the life of Maria Senora Porkalob, the playwright/performer’s grandmother and a first-generation Filipina immigrant, Marin Theatre Company’s Dragon Lady was an inspiring, entertaining survival yarn and a master class in solo storytelling. Part biography, part autobiography, part cabaret musical, and part comedy, Dragon Lady was a tour-de-force written and performed by Sara Porkalob, with wonderful instrumental backing by three members of the Washington-based band Hot Damn Scandal.Barry Willis

 … 2023 was a wonderful year for live theater in the Bay Area …

Stones in His Pockets: Spreckels’ production of this whip-smart Irish comedy was touching, insightful, and laugh-out-loud funny. It demanded the utmost from only two actors, playing no fewer than fifteen characters of varying ages, cultures, social classes, and genders.

All that and no costume changes, no props beyond two simple wooden crates, and a bare-bones stage with only a small stone wall and a projection screen to serve as a backdrop. A brilliant exercise in theater done right. — Nicole Singley

Crowns: Walnut Creek’s CenterREP presented an exhilarating, uplifting celebration of life with this serio-comedic musical. A coming-of-age story about a hip-hop girl from Brooklyn on a journey of discovery in a small South Carolina town, the revival-meeting production starred Juanita Harris as the town’s no-nonsense matriarch and queen bee of a bevy of church ladies, each with a collection of elaborate fancy hats mostly reserved for Sundays, when they want to look their best “to meet the king.” — Barry Willis

Silent Sky: Napa’s Lucky Penny Productions gave us a lovely rendering of Lauren Gunderson’s biographical tale about pioneering mathematician/astronomer Henrietta Leavitt, who toiled at Harvard University Observatory for approximately twenty years until she was finally allowed to look through the telescope. She faced opposition from the scientific establishment of the era, but Leavitt’s insights led to major breakthroughs in human understanding of the universe. — Barry Willis

The People vs. Mona: Pt. Richmond’s cozy Masquers Playhouse delivered a delightfully interactive comedic musical about a trumped-up murder case in the tiny south Georgia town of Tippo. The engaging Nelson Brown served as both MC and inept defense counsel Jim Summerford, who comes to the trial having never won a case. Shay Oglesby-Smith was tremendous as the town’s prosecutor and manipulative mayoral candidate Mavis Frye, matched by Michele Sanner Vargas as the accused Mona May Katt. — Susan Dunn

Clyde’s: Berkeley Rep’s Peet’s Theatre was the scene for this scathing comedy by Lynn Nottage, in which four parolees try their best to thrive under an oppressive boss.

April Nixon was brilliant as the voluptuous, wise-cracking owner of the roadside diner named for her character—a deliciously malicious force of nature. An uplifting, uproarious, and realistic tale about hope, Clyde’s was among the best comedies of the year. — Barry Willis

Hippest Trip—Soul Train, the Musical: The stage of ACT’s Toni Rembe Theater was transformed into both a giant 1970s television set and the production studio for Soul Train, reportedly the longest-running music-and-dance show ever made. Dominique Morisseau’s dazzling retrospective of the groundbreaking television show was wonderfully directed by Kamilah Forbes. Played by confident Quentin Earl Darrington, Soul Train founder Don Cornelius was a former Chicago crime reporter who envisioned a TV show that would uplift his community. Through sheer willpower, he made it a reality, and so did ACT. — Barry Willis

The Wizard of Oz: The Emerald City met Beach Blanket Babylon in ACT’s spectacularly goofy psychedelic The Wizard of Oz. The wild production adhered closely to the beloved original, including story and songs, but was as far removed from a 1940s Saturday afternoon movie matinee as you can imagine—a hilariously gender-bending extravaganza just perfect for Pride Month in San Francisco.  — Barry Willis

The Glass Menagerie: Ross Valley Players returned to the essence of mid-century theater with a sobering production of Tennessee Williams’ classic family drama. Directed by David Abrams, who also played the role of disaffected son Tom Wingfield, the show starred Tamar Cohn as his delusional, manipulative mother Amanda, Tina Traboulsi as his asocial sister Laura, and Jesse Lumb as the good-natured gentleman caller Jim O’Connor, who arrives late in the tale and quickly discovers what a dysfunctional morass he’s stepped into. Tom O’Brien’s austere set, period-perfect costumes by Michael Berg, evocative lighting design by Michele Samuels, and music collected by sound designer Billie Cox all made significant contributions to one of the year’s most compelling dramas. — George Maguire