Sunday, January 5, 2014

Top 10 US Shows 2013

It's been a long theater year for me.  Not sure how I managed to see over 170 concerts, shows, and readings but I did. And I'm not proud.  Mostly horrified.  I've started a new job and I expect my theater-going will be a little more reasonable in 2014.  Anyway that's the new year's resolution I am making.

In years past I have highlighted a couple special mentions for work that I saw in the UK. This year I saw 54 shows in the UK so I am making a separate Top 10 for the UK this year. 

Here are my picks for the best of the US and listen to me talk about some of them on the Maxamoo Theater Podcast:

1.  The Flick:  I loved this play more than some people love their own children.  I feel fiercely protective of it and will defend its merits to the death.  Luxuriating in space, silence, and heartbreak Annie Baker's human and epic play The Flick was expertly directed by Sam Gold and wonderfully performed by Matt Maher, Louisa Krause and Aaron Clifton Moten.

2.  Fun Home:  Sometimes a musical (not by Stephen Sondheim) comes along that tears your beating heart from your chest and this is just that musical.  Stuffed to the rafters with emotion and insight, this musical by Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron with direction by again Sam Gold takes unlikely source material--a graphic memoir--and makes it work on stage.  Challenging in both form and substance, the songs are beacons of emotional clarity.  And man can those ladies sing songs that will make you weep.  A stellar cast and a crisp production made this memorable.

3. A Lot of Sorrow: Some might argue this is not theater.  But I argue this more than six-hour piece of durational performance art was theater to me.  There was a stage, performers, music, lights, an audience, and it was live.  Sure it was a band playing the same song over and over again for more than six hours but that's what made it great. It taught me to listen to music.  It showed me how repetition is not always repetitive.  And six hours spent in one song it turns out can be a transcendent experience.

3. Here Lies Love: What another musical?  Mildly Bitter are you ok?  How did this happen?  Well my blog, I don't know what to tell you except deal with it.  Alex Timbers, who's work I've always been a little tepid on, took an immersive approach to this concept album musical about Imelda Marcos and it was not only a brilliant choice, it enriched the source material.  The audience's participation to the rise of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos translates into complicity by immersion.  The horrors of what they did also end up on the audience's shoulders.  The upbeat dance tracks provided by David Byrne and Fat Boy Slim are transposed into a musical theater language and suddenly everything fits. 

4.  Be the Death of Me:  2013 does feel like the year of immersive theater but I feel like I need to remind people of a piece of immersive theater that didn't have the sexy allure of vokda or masks.  The Civilians created a massive installation of theater and you were allowed to pick which theater "stations" you wanted for the first half and then the audience was brought together for a shared experience in the second half.  The uniting theme was death.  And the strong acting ensemble, unusual structure, and heartbreaking stories just grabbed me and never let me go.

5.  Twelfth Night:  When I saw this production in London last year I enjoyed it but with a change in casting when it came to Broadway (god bless you Sam Barnett) this show suddenly blossomed for me.   Mark Rylance, Samuel Barnett, Liam Brennan, Paul Chahidi and team made for one of the funniest and enjoyable Shakespeare's of my life.  

6.  The Winslow Boy: Nothing about this show made me think I was going to like it but somewhere in between the British legal ephemera and William Morris wallpaper, I just found myself absorbed by this intellectually and emotionally stimulating Terrance Rattigan play that felt more modern and relevant than I expected.  Sometimes it turns out the small battles are full of dramatic import and those in our hearts and minds more fierce than those on a battlefield.

7.  Minsk 2011:  My first introduction to the Belarus Free Theatre was this searing ensemble piece about terrorism, repression, dictatorships, and freedom.  They managed to make political theater both highly educational and intrinsically theatrical--which is not an easy feat.  I love the way this troupe communicates through movement and visuals and I will always make the effort to see them whenever I can because they are telling stories no one wants to hear but everyone needs to hear.

8.  Choir Boy:  Tarrell Alvin McCraney's play snuck up on me.  I went without knowing much about it and left feeling it had been one of the more original plays of 2013.  As it began I thought I knew where it was going and gave a bit of eyeroll, but it defied all my expectations in the best possible ways.  Exploring homophobia, religion, spirituality, honor, and the history of slave spirituals, this play with music dealt with heavy topics but it never felt heavy-handed.  And that unto itself is a major achievement.  I hope to see much more from this playwright in the future.   

9.  Much Ado About Nothing:  Arin Arbus's production of a WWII era Much Ado was an eye-opener.  Even though this Shakespeare was staged indoors, you felt a connection to nature and space that is hard to pull off without the Delacorte Theater and the beauty of Central Park--but she did.  Airy and light, serious and weighty, somehow she balanced all those aspects of the text perfectly.  Jonathan Cake's Benedick has probably ruined me for all others. He stole this production out from under the rest of the cast but I'm not complaining. 

10. Talley's Folly: Perhaps I am getting softer with age but there was something to this romantic play about a couple trying to connect and their tentative relationship in post-War America that kept me on the edge of my seat.  Terrific performances from Danny Burstein and Sarah Paulson and a darker undertone kept this romance from drifting into the maudlin.

Ones that almost made the top 10: The Assembled Parties, Dirty Great Love Story, The Tutors, The Cradle Will Rock, We're Gonna Die, Good Person of Szechwan.  

Special mentions go to Jeanine Serralles being delightfully deranged in The Jammer, Charlotte Parry for being great in everything from Pygmalion on the West Coast to The Winslow Boy on the East Coast--please cast her in The Real Thing, the New York Philharmonic playing The Carousel Waltz, Santo Loquasto's set that says everything in The Assembled Parties and the great cast which managed to make this flawed play move me, the mystique of Rob Drummond's Bullet Catch, Elaine Stritch saying goodbye to the Carlyle and giving no fucks, the exquisite When I Grow Up from Matilda, Adam Guettel inviting Stephen Pasquale to sing at 54 Below and Pasquale burning down the house, the delightful backstage ballet comedy of On Your Toes, the off-stage and on-stage romance of Colin Donnell & Patti Murin in Love's Labour's Lost, the wackiness of Comedy of Errors even in the rain at Shakespeare in the Park, Young Jean Lee's comforting stories and songs of death in We're Going to Die, the triumph of the Greene Space's program of August Wilson's Century Cycle, The Public Theater's commitment to the public and the non-pros who filled the summer stage in Lear deBessonet's production of The Tempest which with Todd Almond's songs made me actually like The Tempest for the first time ever, Eileen Atkins bringing the best of Beckett in All that Fall, the TEAM's unexpected and overlong and messy but meaningful RooseElvis, Erica Lipez's heart-breaking show The Tutors which brought me back to the bad decisions of my twenties with stand-out performances from Keith Nobbs and Matt Dellapina, Nico Muhly's WTF extravaganza of Two Boys at the Met, Taylor Mac's genius in Good Person of Szechwan and The Last Two People on Earth, and Billy Crudup's saddest clown ever in Waiting for Godot.

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