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The Bay Area theater scene has rebounded in 2023 – here are the 10 best shows

Like their counterparts across the country, Bay Area theaters are still slowly recovering from the pandemic, rebuilding their audiences while often reducing their staff and shows during their seasons. Some, like Berkeley’s TheatreFIRST, have closed their doors, while others, like TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, have launched emergency fundraising campaigns.

And there’s also a sense of renewal, with new artistic directors such as TheatreWorks’ Giovanna Sardelli, Marin Theater Company’s Lance Gardner and Marin Shakespeare Company’s Jon Tracy looking to the future.

Through it all, Bay Area theaters have continued to present excellent productions of bold new works and beloved classics. Some felt like big events, like Dominique Morisseau’s “Soul Train” musical “Hippest Trip” at the American Conservatory Theater, or Billy Crudup’s virtuoso performance in David Cale’s suspenseful one-man show “Harry Clarke » at the Berkeley Repertory Theater. Some have been incredibly intimate, like Aleshea Harris’ poetic road revenge western, “Is God Is” at the Oakland Theater Project.

And then there are a few that turned out to be unforgettable. Here are 10 notable shows that stood out to us for one reason or another, or for all the reasons in the world.

“The Headlands,” American Conservatory Theater: Christopher Chen’s plays often resemble elaborate, mind-bending mysteries, so it seems only natural that he would write a full-on murder mystery. Part homage to film noir and part love letter to Chen’s hometown of San Francisco, “The Headlands” hauntingly unfolds as a Chinese-American true crime buff (the wonderfully bewildered Phil Wong) attempts to search for clues to her father’s shooting in what was thought to be a burglary decades ago.

“Bulrusher,” Berkeley Repertory Theater: Berkeley native Eisa Davis deftly blends folkloric elements, lush poetic dialogue, and the unique Boonville dialect of Mendocino County in this 2007 Pulitzer finalist making a triumphant return to her hometown in this co-production with McCarter Theater Center from New Jersey. Director Nicole A. Watson brought it all to shimmering, luminous life with a terrific cast centered on Jordan Tyson as a strong-willed foundling with a gift for prophecy who also happens to be the only black girl in the community.

“Chinglish,” San Francisco Theater: David Henry Hwang’s comedy about an out-of-water American businessman trying to navigate the complex subtext of business in China was hilarious when it played Berkeley Rep in 2012, and it didn’t. only got better as Hwang revised it. . This was especially true in director Jeffrey Lo’s superb staging at the SF Playhouse, with a terrific cast led by Michael Barrett Austin as the down-on-his-luck entrepreneur and Nicole Tung as the government official who helps him to navigate for its own reasons.

“Born with Teeth,” Aurora Theater Company: William Shakespeare’s “Henry VI” plays are rarely performed today, but Liz Duffy Adams’ new play imagining the creation of that trilogy should be produced everywhere. This suspenseful and beautifully written duet brings together leading playwright Christopher Marlowe and the young Shakespeare as collaborators in a cat-and-mouse dance of personal and political intrigue crackling with danger and sexual tension.

“Cambodian Rock Band,” Berkeley Repertory Theater: It took five years for SF native Lauren Yee’s play to come to the Bay Area, but it was worth it. Intertwined with the dynamic 1960s rock music of the band Dengue Fever, the piece tells the captivating story of the members of a Cambodian garage band in the mid-1970s, immediately before and after the arrival of the brutal totalitarian regime of the Khmer Rouge until our days. the point of view of an idealistic Cambodian lawyer who prosecutes war crimes (wonderful singer Geena Quintos) and her seemingly happy-go-lucky father (skilled guitarist Joe Ngo) who clearly has something to hide.

“Dame Dragon”, Marine Theater Company: Writer-performer Sara Porkalob retraced her grandmother’s journey, from gangland killings and nightclub singing in Manila to single motherhood in a trailer park in Washington state, in this comedy utterly captivating solo cabaret musical with a mix of jazzy original songs and clever covers, mashups and medleys. Skillfully bouncing between numerous characters, Porkalob told a touching and sometimes disturbing story of indomitable survival full of humor and heart.

“Six: The Musical”, Broadway SF: As Henry VIII’s six wives competed together as a supergroup of pop divas to determine who was the most abused, the energy in the house when “Six” played at the Orpheum last February was positively electric . Winner of the Tony Award for Best Original Score, this touring British musical from Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss is both wonderfully clever and so absurdly catchy that Studio Cast Recording has been on heavy rotation in this reviewer’s house for the rest of the year.

“Twelfth Night”, Marin Shakespeare Company: In a trial run before being officially hired as the company’s new artistic director, Jon Tracy produced a wonderfully dynamic two-play summer season as the company’s first mainstage show since 2019. The company’s own remix of ” Hamlet” by Tracy proved strikingly audacious. And with a dynamite cast, director and choreographer Bridgette Loriaux’s “Twelfth Night” was about as dynamic, sexy, hilarious, compassionate and visually captivating as this play has ever been, and it’s one of the best Shakespeare comedies to start with.

“Tasha”, 3Girls theater company: Cat Brooks, former Oakland mayoral candidate, wrote this superb solo exhibition about Natasha McKenna, an African-American woman with schizophrenia who was tasered by police in a Virginia prison in 2015. Powerfully presented by Ayodele Nzinga, Jeunenée Simon gave a captivating performance at SF’s Z Below, playing Tasha as both a happy child and a confused adult and switching between other roles such as her sad mother, arrogant police officers and furious activist determined to somehow stop the ongoing epidemic of police killings of black people in the United States.

“Odyssey”, Marine Theater Company: There is no shortage of adaptations of the poet Homer’s ancient Greek epic about Odysseus’ storm-tossed ten-year journey after the Trojan War. But playwright and director Lisa Peterson, formerly associate director of Berkeley Rep, brought the old story home in a new and vital way, setting it in a present-day refugee camp and telling it through four young women from different countries waiting for the next stage of their lives. own travels. After premiering it in Marin, New York-based The Acting Company immediately took this deeply resonant play on tour to communities across the country.

Contact Sam Hurwitt at shurwitt@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter.com/shurwitt.

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