BEST OF LAIST

12 Best Theater Companies In Los Angeles

The vitality and fun of Los Angeles’s theater scene should not be a well-kept secret. It’s ridiculous, really, that even otherwise entertainment-minded and culturally attuned people here (and elsewhere) blithely suppose that most of the shows staged around town are just vanity projects for desperate actors hoping to get noticed by agents and casting directors (okay, there is a little of that kind of thing but it’s easy to avoid). In fact L.A. is home to dozens of excellent theater organizations offering great productions all the time in venues large and small. Here are our favorites, and as always, leave yours in the comments.

ANTAEUS THEATRE COMPANY

Los Angeles is an actors’ town, and many of the best professional theater actors in this town are members of the Antaeus classical theatre company. Antaeus offers exquisite interpretations of great plays from the American and global dramatic repertory as well as theatrical adaptations of literary classics. An unusual feature of Antaeus productions is that they are all completely double cast, with each set of actors appearing in alternating performances. So if you schedule it right, you can bring two different dates to their Uncle Vanya this fall without seeing the same faces on stage both times. The company’s Classicsfest staged reading and workshop series is also usually worth a look.

THE THEATRE @ BOSTON COURT

The company at Pasadena's Boston Court Performing Arts Center benefits from an unusually lavish intimate theater facility and offers reliably adventurous seasons of both new and classic plays. Two of its co-productions last year—an adaptation of Chekhov's The Seagull called Stupid Fucking Bird, in collaboration with the Circle X Theatre (see below), and the world premiere of Everything You Touch with the Rattlestick company—won eight Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Awards between them, and two other recent productions were presented by significant off-off-Broadway companies in New York this June. Company artistic director Jessica Kubzansky's production of Mojada, a contemporary adaptation of Medea by Luis Alfaro, opens offsite at the Getty Villa next week and the west coast premiere of Seven Spots on the Sun debuts on the home stage later in the month.

CELEBRATION THEATRE

This is an exciting moment for the Celebration Theatre company, as it looks forward to its first season in a new home venue, Hollywood's Lex Theatre. Founded in 1982 as a Silver Lake community theater producing gay-themed plays, Celebration later resided in West Hollywood for over two decades before making its recent move. Today, as its mission statement affirms, the company is an established "community of artists dedicated to presenting innovative, provocative, and relevant work that examines the gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex, and allied (lgbtqqia) experience." Before its upcoming three-production season kicks off in November, Celebration will get going in its new space with a four-weekend run of the sketch comedy show Kim Jong Funner..., opening September 18.

CIRCLE X THEATRE CO.

When immigrants to the United States landed at Ellis Island, officials marked their clothing with an “X” if they were suspected to have a mental disease and doctors would confirm that diagnosis (and order immediate deportation) by drawing circles around those X marks. Given the enormity of the task confronting anyone foolhardy enough to try and start an artistically ambitious theater organization, the Circle X company founders adopted that symbol of madness to identify their quixotic enterprise. Is it any wonder, then, that this group is the L.A. artistic home of ultra-outrageous solo theater artist Casey Smith? Circle X’s hit production of Trevor earlier this year and the above-mentioned Stupid Fucking Bird are only the latest in an extended line of bold theatrical initiatives from this company. They introduce a new play, called ICU, to the world in late September.

DEAF WEST THEATRE

The Broadway revival of the musical Spring Awakening opening later this month will be the second show to end up on the Great White Way originally produced by the small North Hollywood-based Deaf West theater company. When Deaf West’s production of Big River transferred to Broadway in 2003, chief New York Times theater critic Ben Brantley acknowledged goosebumps and lauded the show’s “considerable achievement” in “mak[ing] the crucial point that there’s more than one way to tell a story and sing a song.” Deaf West incorporates American Sign Language into its stagings of musicals and straight plays, with hearing, hard-of-hearing and deaf actors all performing together. Their most recent production in L.A., earlier this year, was David Mamet’s American Buffalo.

THE HOLLYWOOD FRINGE FESTIVAL

With a few hundred different productions being performed day and night in dozens of theater spaces, most within walking distance of each other, the Hollywood Fringe Festival every June is a blast. For 3½ weeks theater artists from near and far descend on Theater Row and its environs with all kinds of shows. The event isn’t curated, so anyone willing to pay the entry fee and follow the Festival rules is eligible to present their work; inevitably, some of it isn’t that great. But there are always plenty of must-sees and it is a lot of fun to head over to the neighborhood and just see three or four (or five) pieces in a single day and evening. We’ve seen a lot of Fringe shows since the Festival started up in 2010, and a few that really stick in our minds as favorites are the recent two-performer musical parody adaptation of the King of Kong documentary, Ben Moroski’s intense single-character play-within-a-play The Wake last year, the astounding Pokémusical in 2013, and Michael Kass’s charismatic 2013 solo show Ceremony about traveling to Chile to participate in the shamanic ayahuasca ritual.

IMPRO THEATRE

The Impro Theatre troupe spontaneously creates an entire full-length narrative play at every performance based on a couple of audience suggestions solicited at the beginning of each show. Appearing in different venues around Los Angeles, Impro produces discrete runs of these brilliant theatrical inventions in nine specific genres, including L.A. Noir Unscripted, Twilight Zone Unscripted, Sondheim Unscripted (running this month at the Falcon Theatre in Burbank) and Jane Austen Unscripted. It’s a different show every time, of course, so theoretically they may have an occasional off night. Not in our experience, though.

INDEPENDENT SHAKESPEARE CO.

One great reason (among many) to visit Griffith Park during the summer months are the vibrant Independent Shakespeare Company’s productions of works by the Bard in the Old Zoo amphitheater, offered free of charge to the L.A. public since 2010. (For several years before that, they produced these shows in Barnsdall Park.) Performers and spectators alike typically reflect the racial, cultural and economic diversity of southern California, and the energy shared between cast and crowd infuses these essential plays with a spirited spark that brings them to life for Shakespeare audiences of a new generation. ISC also produces shows during the rest of the year in its Atwater Village studio space.

THE INDUSTRY

“Legit” stage aficionados might argue that an opera company doesn’t belong on a theater-centric list like this one, but The Industry isn’t an opera company like any other. Its 2013 production of the contemporary work Invisible Cities, which quickly sold out its nearly month-long run of performances in the active public spaces of downtown’s landmark Union Station, was one of the most spectacular live performances we’ve ever experienced. Ticket-holders roamed freely about, happening upon singers and dancers situated among the evening and late-night denizens of the station in different rooms and courtyards, while always able to hear the live music being performed in all these various locations through wireless headphones. For this fall’s production of Hopscotch, audience members will actually be riding around the city of Los Angeles with simultaneously performing singers and musicians in different cars. These Industry productions redefine the very concept of theatrical staging.

LOS ANGELES THEATRE CENTER

Operated by the Latino Theater Company and shared with a select and diverse community of multi-disciplinary performing arts groups, the Los Angeles Theatre Center on Spring Street downtown is an arts center with several performance spaces. In addition to the LTC, companies in residence at the Center include the Robey Theatre Company, devoted to work by Black theater artists, and Playwrights’ Arena, which nurtures and produces work by locally based dramatists. Other groups that have participated in LATC’s “Cultural Roundtable” include the Asian-American theater production company Cedar Grove OnStage and the American Indian Dance Theatre. Up next at the Center is the west coast premiere of In Love and Warcraft, produced by the audacious young Asian-American theater collective Artists at Play in association with LTC.

SACRED FOOLS THEATER COMPANY

Around the corner from LA City College in East Hollywood, Sacred Fools is a perpetually buzzing hotbed of theatrical dynamism. They never seem to take a break, producing one show right after another after another, with an extraordinary track record of success. Some of their originally produced plays, like Louis and Keeley: Live at the Sahara, have moved on to achieve national recognition, and plenty of others (too many to name, really) have won awards, attracted huge audiences, piled up critical acclaim and moved on to bigger theaters. Plus, in addition to its steady stream of mainstage productions, Sacred Fools also runs three distinctive, regularly scheduled off-hours (and riotously off-kilter) theater, comedy and performance series. There’s always great stuff to see all over town, of course, but Sacred Fools often feels like the beating heart of the L.A. theater scene. Their new adaptation of Voltaire's Candide opens next weekend.

ZOMBIE JOE’S UNDERGROUND

When the lights go out inside the close confines of Zombie Joe’s Underground's performance space in North Hollywood, you feel for a instant like you’re trapped in the darkest room in the world. Then, especially if you happen to be at ZJU’s annual signature Urban Death production, the next thing you see or hear will likely have you shaking with either riotous laughter or momentary fear. Inspired by the early 20th-century “Theater of Cruelty” philosophy of Antonin Artaud, Zombie Joe and his cohort emphasize the sensual and macabre in all of their shows, from original fare like Attack of the Rotting Corpses (which is about to reopen for another run) to adaptations of Shakespeare and Moliere classics. All performances at ZJU clock in at an hour or less, but there’s usually more intensity packed into that brief span than you'd get from other shows twice as long.