By the numbers for 2019:
174 shows seen (down from 203 last year)
27% of work seen by artists of color (up from 25% last year)
62% of work seen by underrepresented artists (up from 50% last year)
51% of the work I saw was by women (up from 40% last year)
I wrote 57 reviews (up from 48 last year)
I wrote 5 features (down from 11 last year)
I edited 60 pieces (up from 37 last year)
I've reached 1800 shows in my lifetime.
While this all seems substantial, in my head, my work was a disappointment. It was a crazy year. I bought an apartment, moved after 18 years in one place, and there's a lot happening behind-the-scenes with Exeunt NYC where I am now the managing editor. I had plenty of work and it kept me busy but looking back over my writing nothing stands out as that special.
Some years are like this I guess. It’s not that my fields have been left truly fallow, but it feels a bit like a year of tending the garden without much yield. Hopefully, I have given myself a healthy foundation to build on for 2020. I don't know. I'm a hard grader.
Top 10 of 2019
1) What if they went to Moscow?: This Brazilian work by Christiane Jatahy is performed live and also projected into a movie theater. It feels like the perfect show to encapsulate my interests and this decade of theatergoing. As someone who went to film school and started her art training focused on moving images and now writes almost exclusively above live performance, this hybrid cinema-theater work mixes the best of both worlds. It doubles-down on “gaze” because it employs both a theater and cinema one. This self-conscious lens on how we look becomes one of its most important elements.
A loose adaptation of Three Sisters, the production, performed in a mix of English and Portuguese with supertitles, involves a birthday party for the youngest sister. We, as the audience, are present and invited to participate. Called up on stage to dance, handed drinks and snacks, there is no “pretending” we are not there. Overlapping action between the sisters allows for a cacophony of voices, emotions, and story. We “feel” the rising tension between the sisters and old wounds are re-opened, new conflicts come to the fore, and their relationships shift. But once we go to the cinema side to see the actors perform the show again, we see the same scenes and experiences framed entirely differently. With tight camera angles and a limited point of view we see scenes captured that we did not see in the theater (or with more details). The camera, often operated by an old friend, captures the sparks of an affair just beginning. The camera languishes over the body of the sister he longs for. While the camera changes hands and grabs different glimpses of their lives, we learn more about each of the characters from what they look at and how they look. If we only saw the theater side it would be a full, rich stage experience with the cast who express such sisterly affection (and tension) that they seem like they are actually related. But adding cinema to the mix, it reframes the action just enough to give us even more. It also makes its “gaze” so present that we are reminded how much a film director can lead the narrative, control the audience, and how the tools of cinema change the way we “look” at women’s bodies just ever so slightly. A sex scene played in the semi-dark on a theater stage comes across as raw, messy, and vulnerable. When the same acts are filmed, the camera gives hints of sex and passion but use glimpses of entangled bodies to create this.
2) A Strange Loop: There is no monolithic Black experience and yet sometimes seeing theater it can feel like we're not seeing a broad expanse of life experiences. So, a musical about a fat, gay Black man who just wants to get the love he is worthy of in all his relationships is so radical (when really it should not be). Fat people being lovable, sexual, and the center of any story is still quite rare too. It’s a fucking miracle that we all got to experience Michael R. Jackson’s new musical A Strange Loop. Starring the funny and infinitely loveable Larry Owens, this show also confronts complicated taboos about HIV, AIDS, and homosexuality within the Black community, as well as religion and Tyler Perry. Despite a list of “issues”, the musical never feels like a vehicle for lectures. Instead, these are all deeply explored and honestly prodded. It would be a crime if this show did not get more life.
3) Plano: I think maybe Will Arbery’s play passed along a ghost virus to me. Now I just carry it with me everywhere. Or, maybe more accurately, he made me aware of the ghosts I was carrying already. Now they are visible. This play about three sisters who themselves are haunted by past relationships, their family, their religious experiences, and what they’ve done also contains an actual creepy ghost prowling about on stage. These are such natural ghosts to carry if you are always living with a little bit of your past carrying through to your present. Something about Arbery’s fantastical comedy rooted in Catholicism was grounded in a reality I understood. Its secret language was not a foreign one to me. While he played with time and space, the logic of his world was deeply felt. His play Heroes of the Fourth Turning was also revelatory and could have nabbed this spot, Plano hit me more more personally.
4) Barbershop Chronicles: Inua Ellams play based on conversations in Black men’s barbershops all around the world was another window into a Black experience I had not seen on stage before. Focused on the African diaspora and what it means to be a strong black man today, he traverses different cultures and experiences. He finds something specific and universal. With music, joie de vivre, and 1000 shades of Black masculinity the play pushes back against stereotypes and gives complete portraits of the men depicted even if in passing. It is celebratory and not without its sorrows but pain, perhaps too often centered in Black stories, gets to live alongside a multitude of experiences—friendship, family, hope, success, love, and aspiration.
5) King Philip’s Head Is Still on That Pike Just Down The Road: Through his funny, oddball play set in the Plymouth Colony over a governmental dispute over the impaled head of Chief Metacom, playwright Daniel Glenn covers political deadlock, hypocritical morality, stubborn feuds, toxic masculinity, self-interest, self-preservation, and intransigent men. So, nothing has changed in American politics since 1677 except the hats. What’s worse is that this play operates like a turning point. Had the men of this era ever considered the Native Americans they had invaded, fought with, slaughtered, and colonized to be humans equal to them this might be a very different country. This play posits it was possible to have these thoughts in 1677 and, in this moment, perhaps the future would look different had these men depicted fought harder for it. But we know the outcome. All we can do is watch the car crash of a nation happen. Glenn’s play is played for laughs until it isn’t. Glenn makes us see our complacency and how early this took root.
6) Skittles Commercial: The Musical: Instead of making a Super Bowl commercial, Skittles staged a live musical commercial on Broadway (not on Broadway but nearby). How was this a thing? And also, here it is on my top 10 list. When money is no object look what you can create: an advertisement that somehow is more probing about capitalism than most theater. If you foreground capitalism, can you somehow transcend it? Maybe, if you don’t go running out to buy some Skittles. I didn’t buy the candy, but I thoroughly enjoyed this musical advertisement created by playwright Will Eno, director Sarah Benson, composer Drew Gasparini, and copywriter Nathaniel Lawlor (co-writer of the book and lyricist). I listen to this album more than some “commercial” Broadway musicals that are not commercials. It’s a hard line to walk—raising consciousness while entertaining—and this musical pulls it off.
7) Wild Bore: Like Skittles, Wild Bore is another show trying to question its own intentions from within. Can you both create and disavow what you create without breaking “the thing” created? I guess you can if you do it carefully—like porcupines fucking. Wild Bore repurposes theater reviews and builds a show out of the pieces of critical thought (some deeper than others). The result is a funny upside world where you can consider whether criticism is advancing the conversation or shrinking back into itself. On top of that, the show itself challenges itself and whether these cis white female artists have pushed themselves far enough. Are they due some criticism that the critics did not address? The critical snake might start eating its tail but it’s a worthwhile meal to watch and reflect on.
8) Antigone: I’ve seen my fair share of touring Japanese theater. But I’ve never seen something on the scale of Satoshi Miyagi’s production of Antigone. Staged in a giant pool that extends nearly the width of the Park Avenue Armory, this production uses elements of Japanese Noh theater. There are separate physical performers and voice performers. The entire work is introduced and explained by the ensemble before they go about performing it. With a large team of drummers and musical interludes, there is a meditative energy to it all. The hypnotic production conjured a spirit world that lives within arm’s reach of the living. With ethereal lightness, the performers seem to glide over the water and we think about how morality and honor can be easily lost in politics.
9) Keep: It’s not Daniel Kitson’s best show but it’s one of his richest in years. A false meditation on the objects in his house becomes a real consideration of that lies we tell ourselves, the faultiness of memory, and the pain others hold that we have forgotten. Who are we if we do not even recognize the things we’ve said and done? Can our past selves be reconciled to our present selves? Is it possible to hold onto too much and at the same time not enough? Careless self-absorption can live oddly close to thoughtful introspection, and we are all guilty of it. Sure, the show is wrapped up in Kitson leading the audience one-way while intending to go another. Kitson is always misleading his audiences and sometimes this can be the best part of the journey (or tedious and not worth the payoff, depending on the show). But the person who is most tricked here is Kitson himself. His constructed admissions of fault and an unromanticized conclusion suggest a shift in his work and welcome space for growth in a new direction.
10) Greater Clements: I found Samuel D. Hunter's play to be an emotional vise that just closes in on you for three hours and all you can do is cry. An Idaho town is disappearing--quite literally. The townsfolk have voted to dissolve the town. Think a very local Brexit. But it's caused its residents to consider what the meaning of community, history, and continuity is--and in some ways maybe this is a healthy discussion long overdue. Racism, local history (the Japanese internment), and labor abuses have been perhaps too easily overlooked to maintain cohesion and conformity. It also asks questions about why people stay and why people leave--the town but also each other. At the center too is a young man (Edmund Donovan) suffering from mental illness and what staying and leaving a family means. The play is pure tragedy and we can only watch as the characters will do what they do. The gap between good intentions and failing to meet those intentions is heartbreaking when there's so much trying. Donovan carries his character's mental health struggles in his tense posture and strained voice. His performance is full of anguish as his character tries to make the right decisions when his brain and body do not always want to follow. It's a lot of "acting" but it's not "big" performance. Donovan builds this all in layers and Hunter's script does the rest.
Some of my thoughts on the most memorable performances of the year are on Exeunt. And my thoughts on the decade in theater.