Sunday, December 28, 2014

Top 10 of 2014: US edition

Year-end self-reflection is a bitch. Looking over my theatrical year I saw a lot of high-profile works that did not quite live up to their potential and discovered some new artists I had not known about before who are now new favorites.  But the big takeaway from my list is about audiences and theater and how those two things crash into each other. 

Every year it is a surprise what shows have stayed with me for months...and what shows I cannot even remember when I look at the titles.  I saw about 200 shows (which includes concerts, comedy, theater) with about 50 in the UK.  As usual I will make a separate UK list. I am mad at myself for not blogging about certain shows when I saw them and they were more fresh in my mind.  But as I mentioned on the Maxamoo podcast, I ain't got no time for theater regrets.

Here's what made me think, feel, and laugh in 2014. 

1. An Octoroon (Soho Rep):  Branden Jacobs-Jenkins's play An Octoroon was so good it hurt.  Tearing apart time, space, race, performance, and America all the while being funny, smart, and relentless.  It bent theater on its head and we don't have enough plays doing this.  Branden Jacobs-Jenkins had two very different plays staged this year in New York (Appropriate--a third, War, was staged in New Haven which I did not see) and both were worthy of notice.  Appropriate may have looked like a wacky family livingroom dramedy but it was a play about family, history, and race through a very unexpected lens.  I have to remind myself over and over again that Jacobs-Jenkins is only 29.  He's only just begun.  And if you missed An Octoroon you'll have another chance to see it.  It's making a return engagement at Theater for an New Audience in February 2015.

2. Stop Hitting Yourself (LCT3):  This was another form bending play put on this year in New York.  By Austin theater troupe Rude Mechs, Stop Hitting Yourself never seemed to set the critics on fire.  But I was mouth agape the entire time, wondering where this bent fairy tale was going to go and dazzled by how this company got there.  Looking at capitalism, charity, artifice, and intimacy, Kirk Lynn's play devised with this company, broke the fourth wall and tried to grab hold of the audience.  Perhaps not the best setting--LCT3--for this kind of rule breaking because the audience I was with did not seem wholly on board. But all the better reason to do it.  We need some shaking up as audiences.  I wish I had had more chances to see this play.  They are a talented ensemble that lives too far away from me.  We need more Rude Mechs in New York!

3. Love and Information (New York Theatre Workshop):  So this was my first Caryl Churchill play.  I know.  For shame.  But I loved the filmic nature of this smash-cut-vignette-upon-vignette show that showed you only need a moment to create drama on stage.  A technical achievement for a staging and a strong cast that made the most of those brief seconds on stage.  A wholly enveloping theater experience that for me felt more like an installation or durational performance than traditional proscenium work.  Sneaky and fascinating. 

4.  Scenes from a Marriage (New York Theatre Workshop):  I was very late to the Ivo van Hove party but after seeing A View from the Bridge, Scenes from a Marriage, and his adaptation of Angels in America this year, I'm all in.  Staged like an immersive divorce, Scenes from a Marriage at New York Theatre Workshop was an aural and intellectual gauntlet.  From the dramatic transformation of the theater space between acts to the relentless cast giving every ounce of themselves on stage in tripartite repetition, it was a marathon for all involved.  But almost every moment (save the silly dance cue) was worth it.  Exciting, engaging, and unlike anything I had seen before.  Seeing three tremendously different productions from van Hove I saw him tearing apart texts in totally different ways, it was a good year to start paying attention to him and learning how far theater will stretch.

5. Gym Party (Forest Fringe/Abrons Arts Center):  When Forest Fringe came to New York I knew nothing about the Made in China performers (Christopher Brett Baily, Jess Latowicki, Ira Brand).  By the time they left, we were obsessed.  An interactive competition show that forced the audience to take sides and then be left with the cruel consequences of choice, I had to see it multiple times. Here was yet another show reaching out into the audience to get people to see and feel theater differently.  It was great to have a mini-Forest Fringe festival in New York and I wished Christopher Brett Bailey had been able to perform This is How We Die in its entirety.  We only got an excerpt and it was not enough.

6.  Disgraced (Lyceum Theatre/Broadway):  In some ways I liked the Bush Theatre's production of this play a little better.  But it's such an important play to be on Broadway that my complaints about this production (Gretchen Mol fails to give her character the depth she needs to keep the balance of power in the play) are minor in comparison to the revolutionary act of having a show about race, religion, perception, and power being on the Great White Way these days.  I think the play uses well-written and fulsome characters to explore complicated ideas, unpleasant thoughts, and prejudice in ways we never talk about.  But putting this conversation into a Broadway house and forcing an audience not often asked to look at itself with any level of criticism frames this play and production in a new way.  Where this is happening is just as important as what it is saying.  And I'm grateful for brave producers to be putting this on and for Ayad Akhtar to have written this play.

7.  The Death of Klinghoffer (Metropolitan Opera):  Well I guess this is the political section of my Top 10.  What the effing fuck do I know about opera?  LITERALLY NOTHING.  But when you try and tell me something is anti-Semitic and get it shut down before it even opens I'm definitely going to want to check it out.  And I'm glad I did.  What an incredible production and what a monumental piece of art. I'm just so glad this opera exists and that we are trying to wrestle with this incredibly difficult ideas and feelings.  We need more of this in the world and not less.  Like Disgraced it feels slightly like it's a work bringing a conversation to people that those people aren't sure they are ready to have.  And sometimes audiences need a push.  This is a beautiful and moving push. 

8. Straight White Men (Public Theater): This play starts out with some kickass music (available in a playlist here thanks to @MissLizRichards).  I do enjoy hearing someone shout the word PUSSY loudly as audience members stick their fingers in their ears.  But Young Jean Lee's play about straight, white men is a much quieter slow burn than that music sets up. A careful and detailed look at the damage men do even through love and understanding.  Lee gets at the heart of privilege--and how internalized it is. It's an incredibly nuanced approach to a complicated topic and she continues to show how important her perspective on art is.

9.  The Few (Rattlestick Theater):  Samuel D. Hunter's The Few cemented for me the importance of Hunter's voice in new American theater.  He has a way with making plays about broken people that feels genuine and insightful.  His quiet plays remind me that sometimes that is what we need theater for.  Not everything has to be wham-bam-thank-you ma'am action packed drama as our television shows and movies seem to call for.  Sitting together in the dark, in a room so quiet you can hear the ticking of the clock and thinking about the damage we do to each other as humans is just as relevant and necessary. Maybe even more so.  Between The Few and Pocatello this year alone, Hunter continues to turn over themes of family, love, loss, and forgiveness, and watching his characters struggle with these makes me feel less alone on this earth.

10. A Doll's House (Young Vic/BAM): In a year of rotating British designed sets (this, Machinal, A Streetcar Named Desire), this import from England got me obsessed with the spaces in between things. It's a vital and exciting revival of Ibsen's classic play directed by Carrie Cracknell and adapted by Simon Stephens.  And indeed Ian MacNeil's set rotates showing Nora's life spinning out of control. But instead of the moment where "spoiler alert" Nora walks out on her family I keep coming back to her confrontation with Krogstad.  A scene of sadness and desperation staged in a back hallway that somehow said more to me about the characters than the final door slam.   Cracknell and Stephens have teased out a contemporary humanity from a work that can often feel out-dated.  Nora is not the only person trapped.  We are all trapped by various circumstances and how we manage our survival in this morass of life is the measure of things.

Special Mentions:  Sheldon Best being the future of theater in Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, The Box, and Brownsville Song (b-side for Tray)--MAKE HIM A STAR; Steven Pasquale and Kelli O'Hara burning down the sexy house with their voices in Bridges of Madison County; Sam Gold for bringing awkward weirdness to direction on Broadway in The Realistic Joneses and The Real Thing even when it doesn't always work he just keeps keeping on; The Debate Society's Jacuzzi for letting me "get" the Debate Society finally;  Billy Magnussen is not just a pretty face and six pack, though he is those things as well, but in Sex with Strangers it's his acting in the face of his easily dismissible pretty boy trappings that makes the performance; Christopher Oram's incredible set for Macbeth at the Park Avenue Armory that made me think I was in Scotalnd; Gabriel Ebert and Nick Westrate and the ladies of Casa Valentina for exploring femininity through masculine bodies;  Nathan Lane and Megan Mullaly perfectly matched in the Carnegie Hall one night only Guys & Dolls production; Kirk Lynn for Stop Hitting Yourself and Your Mother's Copy of the Kama Sutra which wasn't what I thought it was going to be; Aedín Cosgrove's incredible lighting design for Pan Pan Theatre's Embers which bent space;  You Can't Take It With You for delivering the warm and fuzzy goods from days of yore with color blind-ish casting and a strong hand on the comedy tiller; Heidi Schreck for looking at mental illness in a new way in Grand Concourse, Basetrack LIVE for putting stories about soldiers and their wives on stage; Bryce Dessner and Richard Reed Parry for curating an incredible array of songs for the Brooklyn Youth Chorus and making me understand Black Mountain College; The Amoralists for the wackadoo Enter at Forest Lawn; Cherry Jones for her indomitable presence in We Were Young and Unafraid.

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