Performance Photo by Alan Cleaver

Published on February 19th, 2013 | by Alicia Coombes


Top Ten Theatrical Moments

Cyclops in the Salt Plays by Jon Tracy

Hydra in the Salt Plays by Jon Tracy

As a theater professional, I’ve seen more plays than I can count. Picking favorites is tough since I base my opinion on a number of considerations: the experience as a whole, technical elements, various aesthetic choices…The list goes on. Therefore, it is almost impossible for me to tell people which shows they should see since any given production could be vastly different from what made it enjoyable to me as an individual viewer.

This is why I could never come up with a top ten list of productions; instead, I’ve chosen to hone in on a top ten list of onstage moments that made some of my favorite productions awesome. What makes these moments so special are the balance of surprising elements and technical expertise; moments that turn out differently than I expect, while showcasing a very talented person doing something extraordinary. To me, these moments truly make theater the unique artform it is.

10. Good Vibrations

In the Next Room, or The Vibrator Play by Sarah Ruhl

Set in Victorian England, In the Next Room is about a doctor who cures “hysteria” by inducing orgasm with a vibrator. There is a touchingly hilarious scene in the middle of this sumptuous play in which the doctor’s wife (Hannah Cabel) and patient (Maria Dizzia) sneak into his office to fire up his newest machine and test it on themselves. Watching shy, naive housewives discover a vibrator while discussing its merits in front of a jaded modern audience — all without becoming pornographic — was a charged moment indeed.

9. Gender Bender

Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris

In Jacques Brel’s famous musical revue, the song, “Amsterdam”, can be powerful but blustery and is usually sung by a male actor. This particular production by the Marin Theatre Company was no different; the song was dark but intriguing, well-executed by a great male singer. During a production by the Marin Theatre Company, the lead singer fell ill and Kristin Stokes took his place. Stokes’ soulful voice transformed the song from a harsh retelling of fishermen and prostitutes living in Amsterdam into deep, touching and bitter emotion.

8. Curtain Raiser

Arabian Nights by Mary Zimmerman

The well-known story of a murderous king who falls in love with his wife’s tales is a rich mine-field of beautiful images. A cast of dozens work together to weave the tales together using song, dance, comedy and movement. In Zimmerman’s production, the curtain rises with nothing onstage but shapes covered in white dropcloths. When the lights come down and the real show begins, however, the space is transformed by a sudden influx of singing actors and carefully orchestrated stage magic, revealing Oriental rugs, hanging lanterns and bright silks. The simplicity of quickly changing a space in front of the audience’s eyes made this moment breathtaking.

7. Last Word

Taming of the Shrew by Shana Cooper

The story of a woman fighting for autonomy, being humiliated and starved, wagered as a bet to an insufferable man and slowly brought to submission might be enough for many to want to put this particular Shakespeare play to rest. However, Shana Cooper’s careful direction of the onstage chemistry between Kate (Erica Sullivan) and Petruchio (Slate Holmgren) allowed their relationship to bloom. Kate’s final speech, addressed to her sister, is traditionally meant to show her newfound understanding of submissiveness; however, Sullivan executed the speech as a loving affirmation, speaking of loyalty as a way to lift her up instead of hold her back.

6. Just Be Yourself

Anna Deveare Smith’s monologues

Anna Deveare Smith‘s one-woman shows feature monologues taken from her own interviews with real people (some famous, some not). In her most recent show, Let Me Down Easy, her characters included a rodeo bull rider, Lance Armstrong, Eve Ensler and a doctor who worked in a hospital after Hurricane Katrina. However, my favorite moments in her shows happen in between her character monologues, when she is herself once again, moving in her own body, before jumping into the next character like a spirit medium.

5. Simple Twist

The Salt Plays by Jon Tracy

In this rewrite of Homer’s Iliad, low-tech theatricality enhanced the performance and made it unforgettable. Twine wrapped around nails became the outline a ship, while cleverly hung lights moved by actors became a Cyclops and Hydra.

4. Heartbreaker

The Birds Flew In performed by Nora el Samahy

In this short play, a Middle Eastern woman laments her son’s death at his funeral, recounting a heart-wrenching story of coming to grips with losing her son. The entire monologue was disturbing, vibrant and nuanced, especially when el Samahy played with emotions like fear and irony to temper her character’s mourning.

3. Girl Gone Wild

The Wild Bride by Emma Rice

The inherent theatricality of having three women play the same character at different points in her life has been explored before, to be sure. However, in Kneehigh Theatre‘s production of The Wild Bride, this convention is used to its full potential. All three women interact during each phase of the character’s life, weaving together stages of pain, sadness, healing and eventual victory.

2. Bringing Home the Bacon

Our Town by the Barrow Street Theatre

Having been performed hundreds of times in high schools throughout the country, Our Town can easily become steeped in sickly-sweet nostalgia. In the final act (usually the most heavy-handed and sentimental), one of the main characters, Emily Webb, looks down upon the town from the afterlife, begging the semi-omnipotent Stage Manager to visit the morning of her 11th birthday one more time. In this production, the Stage Manager whisked open a curtain to reveal a fully-functioning kitchen with Mrs. Webb tossing a slab of bacon in a cast-iron skillet. As the bacon sizzled, the tiny theatre was filled with the smell of breakfast, along with personal nostalgia from individual viewers.

1. Movie Magic

Brief Encounter by Emma Rice

Incorporating projections into theater has become a trend that walks the line between adding a creative element to the production and distracting from the stage. Emma Rice’s use of projections in Brief Encounter, however, was nothing short of theatrical genius. The play incorporates a number of film elements: soaring music, close-ups of a beautiful woman’s tear-streaked face and black-and-white scenery. One of the most jaw-dropping moments happened during the lovers’ final farewell. As an actor ran to catch a train (projected on a screen behind them), he leaps through it, his image then appearing in the window of the projection, waving to his lover as he glides offscreen.

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About the Author

Alicia Coombes is a dramaturg, director and writer. Growing up in rural Oklahoma as an outsider with a flair for the dramatic, she wasn’t exposed to very much art or theatre outside of rodeos and Halloween Hell Houses. Luckily as a teenager her family returned to the Bay Area and she quickly immersed herself in more arts and culture than she had imagined was possible. She still has a particular soft spot for the dramatic (and clowns, perhaps from the rodeo days). She graduated from San Francisco State University with a BA in Theatre with an emphasis in Dramaturgy. She was Aurora Theatre Company’s Literary Manager and Artistic Assistant for four seasons and served as resident dramaturg for the 2011-2012 Season. She has worked in many aspects of the theatre with several other Bay Area companies including Crowded Fire Theater, Marin Theatre Company, Z Space/Word for Word, Golden Thread, Woman’s Will, and CalShakes and is currently the Company Manager for San Francisco’s foolsFURY Theater.

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