Monday, January 14, 2013

Top 10 for 2012: Thinking and Feeling

Looking back on 2012, the top 10 shows I saw reflect plays and musicals that surprised me, challenged me, and ultimately moved me.  I saw more than 130 shows in New York, Chicago, Kansas City, Washington DC, Edinburgh, London and Havana, Cuba.  I stumbled upon writers I loved (Luke Barnes, Samuel D. Hunter, Will Eno).  I saw some bold direction by new and established directors (Sam Gold, Tam├ís Ascher, Declan Donellan, Mike Nichols).

And as always there were some performers who just made my heart stop.  2012 was a year of off-Broadway shows that I could not stop talking about, when Broadway did not catch my attention. I was drawn to the intellectual and the raw. 

I was happy to finally meet up with some of my favorite tweeters in real life and was grateful for all the encouragement I received from friends and critics in the US and the UK on what I honestly thought would just be my personal musings over here in a quiet, unexamined part of the internet.  Boy was I wrong. 

Thanks for all your support and I hope you enjoy my Top 10 U.S. Shows for 2012:

1) It's Always Right Now, Until It's Later:  Daniel Kitson strikes again.  In what might be his most sophisticated work, Daniel Kitson returned to St. Ann's Warehouse in 2012 with another stellar monologue that changed my life.  Yeah maybe I saw it 8 times in 1 month but maybe it was totally worth it.  It was a tale of unexplored moments in two peoples lives. Kitson describes the funny, profound, and mundane moments with vivid imagery and thoughtful care.  If you missed it, you should just kill yourself now--wait don't then you will miss out on whatever Kitson might do in 2013 and it will be worth living for.  I was sad to see St. Ann's calendar for 2013 did not have another Kitson show on it but I am just being greedy.  2012 was a busy year for Daniel Kitson.  It marked his return to stand-up with a new searing 90 minute work called Where Once Was Wonder.  He debuted two new theater works in the UK.  He took one theater piece to Edinburgh with the most specific title of the year: As of 1.52pm GMT on Friday April 27th 2012, This Show Has No Title.  The other, Lucinda Ding and The Monstrous Thing, was performed at the Open Air Theatre in Regent's Park.  Not sure New York will get to see either of these.  I would have liked to have seen how U.S. audiences would have reacted to As of 1.52pm with Kitson's deconstruction of his stage persona and his complicated Escher-like story structure.  He's currently doing some work-in-progress shows in London so hopefully they'll be some new finished shows to report on for 2013.  The bottom line is if you hear Daniel Kitson is doing comedy, theater, or hell, baking something near you, buy a ticket and just go.  It will be worth seeing it whatever it is. 

2) Uncle Vanya: I saw three Vanyas this year.  From the experimental (Sam Gold and Annie Baker's mumblecore showpiece) to the traditional (Christopher Hampton's fine translation given a bit of a lethargic rendering on the West End) and without a doubt the Sydney Theater Company's production overshadowed them all.  Director, writer and cast found the right balance of comedy and tragedy.  The all-star Australian cast made the most of every moment on stage--Chekhov never felt so vital and alive as it did in this production.  Cate Blanchett again reminding us all that she is one of the finest stage actresses around but she was largely upstaged in my mind by Richard Roxburgh's lovable heart-breaking Vanya.  He made you believe it was possible Yelena could love him, and when she does not, it is hard to watch him pick himself back up again.  Roxburgh might have cried straight through the curtain call and I was right there with him.

3) Goodbar: Who says I don't like musicals!  As I live-tweeted my way through Waterwell's concept album of Looking for Mr. Goodbar I was impressed by the cohesive creative elements of this production: the excellent use of video and projection to add to the narrative and the balls-to-the-wall music that perfectly captured the characters, the situations, and the emotional journey.  Goodbar's score gave pauses, nuance, and emotional ebbs and flows so that when things go really awry you are on the edge of your seat.  The unusual format, the stunning music, and the powerful story added up to one of my favorite musicals of the year and I was still talking about it in December when I had seen it in January.

4) Mr. Burns A Post Electric Play: One of the most intellectually engaging works I saw this year and I had get of New York to see it.  I visited four American regional theaters this year and saw some terrific productions.  But the one that stayed with me the most was this unusual musical at Woolly Mammoth in Washington DC about how we tell stories (directed by Steve Cosson, written by Anne Washburn, with Michael Friedman as composer).  The play introduces us to a world where we must re-write the stories of our past.  And as time moves on, and the source material is gone, our re-tellings and re-renderings drift far away from the original work.  Bringing up centuries of storytelling traditions from The Greeks, to Shakespeare, to campfire stories, to live television performers, Mr. Burns was a sad and beautiful reminder of how much we need stories.  Entertainment is not a luxury but an essential form of how we communicate and relate to each other and no matter what happens we hope it will always be a part of what we do. 

5) Cock: Mike Bartlett may be a prolific playwright in the UK but his first play to open in NY debuted this year. A terrific ensemble made this sexy comedy about how hard relationships are a surprise summer hit with me.  The play was daring, smart, funny, and well-acted.  Cory Michael Smith (also great in Samuel D. Hunter's The Whale), Jason Butler Harner and Amanda Quaid made the crisp dialogue sing.  I would have liked to have seen the original UK cast of Andrew Scott and Ben Whishaw but New York audiences lucked out with the terrific NY cast and now all I want is more Mike Bartlett.

6) Dogfight:  Sometimes adapting a film into a musical can create a delicate, well-rendered, thoughtful and emotional experience that transcends the film.  My skepticism about movie-to-musical adaptations quickly drifted away and I fell for Peter Duchan's sensitive book, Pasek and Paul's beautiful heart-breaking songs, and Lindsey Mendez and Derek Klena bringing vulnerability and tenderness to the story.  Mendez finally gets a leading role worthy of her and I hope it brings her lots more work because she's an underutilized treasure. 

7) Death of A Salesman:  Mike Nichols directed this revival of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman and reminds us all why he will always be one of our greatest directors.   Andrew Garfield was a revelation throwing himself physically into the role of the Biff.  He brings a burning intelligence and raw physical commitment to the stage and it felt slightly like the reincarnation of James Dean (I know some serious hyperbole but Garfield's performance reminded me of the rawness, violence and sensitivity that Dean had in Rebel without a Cause and East of Eden).  The entire ensemble here made me sit up and take notice.  Finn Wittrock was so charismatic as Happy that I flew to Chicago to see him in Sweet Bird of Youth.  Linda Emond was a smarter, savvier Linda than I was expecting (even if her performance in the end left me cold).  Philip Seymour Hoffman managed to stay out of his own way and his unlikable Willy Loman enhanced the tragedy for me.

8)  The Whale:  I saw Samuel D. Hunter's play early in its run before any of the hype.  When I left the play a puddle on the floor it came as quite a surprise to me.  In my weekend of downer Dad plays (somehow I managed to see Fun Home, The Whale and The Heiress all the same weekend), I found the motley crew of characters in The Whale who bring happiness and pain to each other to be rendered so gingerly that sometimes I confused drama with real life.  I loved the way in which writing and honesty could bring lightness and clarity to the characters.  A great ensemble was led by Shuler Hensley who beamed joy and love under a massive fat suit.  
9)  The Piano Lesson: I squeezed this August Wilson revival into the final weekend of the year and I'm glad that I did.  Ruben Santiago Hudson's production captures the musicality and cadences of August Wilson's work perfectly.  A tragic family epic with the same agonizing pathos as Long Day's Journey Into Night or Death of a Salesman.  Here an African-American family in 1930's Pittsburgh continues to live in the shadow of slavery, loss, unspeakable violence, and a desire to move on and move up, but ghosts of the past make that nearly impossible.  Changing geography rarely changes our history--we take ourselves where ever we go.  The Piano Lesson introduced me to actor Brandon J. Dirden and here, as Boy Willie, he's hard to take your eyes off of.

10)  Mies Julie: This Strindberg adaptation by Yael Farber unleashed the buried agonies of apartheid and made the sexual repression, taboos and shame of the original ring true in the South African setting.  Layering contemporary politics on top of this play, Farber manages to balance the personal and the political (sometimes leaning a little too far into the symbolic but...).  In this adaptation, this play had resonance and meaning beyond its roots and made me think about history, racial strife, and the vast amount of healing that many countries need even after racial apartheid is lifted. 

US Special Mentions: Fun Home, The Other Josh Cohen, One Man, Two Guvnors (the original UK production was listed as part of my 2011 wrap-up), Tribes, Gatz, Title and Deed, The Maids, Merrily We Roll Along (Encores!), Sunday in the Park with George (Chicago Shakespeare), 'Tis Pity She's a Whore (Cheek by Jowl), Newsies

UK Special Mentions: The River, Chapel Street, Oh the Humanity, As of 1.52pm GMT, Richard III/Twelfth Night (The Globe), Merrily We Roll Along (Menier).

Performances to remember: Brandon J. Dirden bringing a physicality and musicality to his role as Boy Willie in The Piano Lesson, Scott Shepherd becoming Nick Carraway in Gatz, Jeanine Serralles channeling a near-murder victim in Let Me Ascertain You and finding her inner role-player in The Maids, Andrew Garfield sobbing and snotting his way through Death of a Salesman, Mark Rylance and Sam Barnett reinventing their roles in Richard III and Twelfth Night, Tracy Letts finding an hitherto unknown inner strength in George in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Cheyenne Jackson and Ari Graynor being perfectly stupid in The Performers,  Armando Riesco being both man and boy in Water by the Spoonful, Jason Danieley making Sunday sing in Sunday in the Park with George, Finn Wittrock primally screaming in Sweet Bird of Youth, Diane Lane being haggard and radiant simply by being in Sweet Bird of Youth, Denis O'Hare telling stories in An Iliad, Will Chase singing in everything from Rogers and Hammerstein's Pipe Dream to a literal opium pipe dream in Drood, Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline as the oddly perfect star-crossed Romeo and Juliet, Alexandra Socha, Roberta Colindrez, and Sydney Lucas (whose rendering of the baby lesbian torch song Your Keys is maybe my favorite song of any musical this year) breaking hearts in Fun Home, Kate Wetherhead doing everything in The Other Josh Cohen, Jeremy Jordan and Ryan Steele being a stahhs in Newsies, Ria Zmitrowicz revving up for a night on the town in Chapel Street, The entire cast of Oh the Humanity (Northern Stage) hitting the right notes of comedy in Will Eno, Becky Baker and Annaleigh Ashford making a killer duo in Assassins, and most of all Steve Rosen and David Rossmer teaching us all that Neil Life is better than real life in The Other Josh Cohen.

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