Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Top 10 of 2015: UK/International Edition

It’s no secret I love plays.  But it certainly comes out more when you see what shows I prioritize when I travel.  I did see some musicals but I didn't like them.  This Top 10 list reflects a play heavy schedule but a play with music squeezed itself in there.  

I saw 95 shows abroad but this heavily favors what I saw in Edinburgh at the Fringe.  I missed some of the high profile shows in the UK showing up on other Top 10 lists (bad timing).  I’ve expanded my list beyond the UK this year to “International” because I saw work in Berlin and Amsterdam as well which was important to include.   

1. I Heart Catherine Pistachio (Edinburgh Fringe): I still don’t know what this was and it was absolutely the best thing I saw at the Edinburgh Fringe.  Was it performance art?  A play told through movement? Just a play? I don’t think labels matter in this instance.  Appalling, morally bankrupt, and truly grotesque (in the best possible way), this show used movement and mockery to tell a fucked-up story that felt like a very adult version of Roald Dahl.  Dark, funny, and unbelievable, it was so hard to watch yet you could not look away.  Somehow in telling a story that showed off the worst of humanity, it forced you to look at your own.  And it was very very very funny.

2. Iphigenia in Splott (Edinburgh Fringe):  Walking out of this show I kind of get a sense of what it was like to see Look Back in Anger in 1956.  Searing rage on stage that wildly stabs at society and, in particular here, at the government for how bad things have gotten in the UK today.  Using class and gender to illustrate this point and making us see our own complicity as we try to dismiss this girl in front of us who does not want our pity and does not want our compassion, and yet demands it. 

3. Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons (Edinburgh Fringe):  An idea play that transcends ideas.  It manages to be sly and obvious at the same time--not hiding its intent and yet creeping into you mind and imagination such that it will stay with you long after you see it.  Who are we if we limit speech?  Not the kind of speech but the amount.  How much of what we say makes us who we are?  And does limiting who we are change how we govern and care. That’s a lot to manage in a two-hander, student work that also takes place sometimes in a cat cemetery.  Hope this show tours to the US because I think the lessons in it are valid regardless of geography. 

4. This Will End Badly (Edinburgh Fringe):  Rob Hayes’s play may have been about men in crisis but it did not at the same time engage in female erasure so AMEN FOR THAT.*  He explores mental illness, toxic masculinity, and the struggle for three men to communicate and express themselves.  I’ve since read his other plays—Awkward Conversations with Animals I’ve Fucked and Step 9 (of 12)—and he seems to be playing with male characters who are lost and searching in different ways.  And he does so with a dark humor and love of language so that even as things get more challenging there’s a beauty to that darkness. I’m on board. (I received a complimentary ticket).

5. Medea (Gate Theatre): There was a lot of Greek theater in London this year and I missed most of it. But I’m glad Jane Howard suggested I check out this production based on an Australian adaptation of Medea. Writers Kate Mulvany and Anne-Louise Sarks have concocted a clever twist on an old classic. Told from the perspective of Medea’s sons and with a contemporary setting, we get insight on developing masculinity, brothers, parenting, and marriage through the eyes of children. But their harried mother who has locked her boys in their room and who comes in looking forlorn is not just your average overworked, tired mom at the end of her rope. Her name is Medea and we know how this story ends and that's where all the drama comes from--sadly, anxiously waiting for the boys to catch up with us. It’s a gamble to put all your theater eggs in the hands of children and yet this Belvoir/Gate Theatre production managed to pull it off. They were not cloying and their sense of childish abandon quietly plays out against the tragic ending we all know is coming.

6. Women’s Hour (Edinburgh Fringe):  Feminist protest theater about the media images of women.  Sign me up.  Somewhere between performance art and a variety show, these women brought a joyful noise to a serious and tough subject.  Smart and cutting.

7. The Glass Menagerie (Toneelgroep Amsterdam): Yeah I went to Amsterdam to see Sam Gold’s production of The Glass Menagerie, a play I don’t actually like.  What of it?  You know what.  It was worth it.  Taking the histrionics down a notch and just focusing on the intimacy of a struggling family, Gold and the talented Toneelgroep ensemble made the memory play magic happen but kept the drama grounded.  No fanciful bullshit.  All hard truths.  

8. Polyphony (Edinburgh Fringe):  Daniel Kitson was back to Edinburgh with a new show which relied on pre-recorded segments.  Thankfully this time he was an active participant in the story about a man putting on a play.  Whether this was a show about Kitson battling his own creative demons or another pleading exploration of his curmudgeonly persona or fiction layered on truth in ways we’ll never know, it was both a return to form (intricately structured layered narrative) and incremental movement away from what he's done before.  He keeps pushing at the edges of storytelling and it's always in the border regions that his structural work excites.  

9. Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour (Edinburgh Fringe):  In some ways this is the most mainstream show on my list.  It is written by Billy Elliot scribe Lee Hall and at times it can feel like a ELO jukebox musical (yeah, what?), but it’s about young women, living life on their terms, full of sexual agency, in a world that really is inhospitable to them.  It’s an all-girl ensemble (and an all-female band when I saw the production) and it’s a coming-of-age story we’ve seen many times before but so rarely from an exclusively female perspective.  And they all kick-ass.  (I received a complimentary ticket).

10.  Kill My Darlings: The Streets of Berladelphia (Volksbuhne/Berlin):  I had to include this show more for my experience of it than for what happened on stage.  I can't actually tell you what the show was about.  I saw it in German without super-titles.  But I learned that seeing work outside my native language could be really liberating.  With dancers descending from the rafters on wires, a rainstorm on stage, audience members being invited to the stage to slip-and-slide in the rain puddles, and a helpless octopus I was shaken and moved by it.  

Honorable mentions: Simon Godwin again wrangling difficult material into something riveting with Man and Superman, Sebastian Nubling's literal car crash Ring Cycle epic, The Beauty of Revenge, the Berliner Ensemble's criss-cross-dressing Twelfth Night and the handsome face of Sabin Tambrea,  Jamie Lloyd putting James McAvoy on a unicycle in his underwear in The Ruling Class, Mark Rylance being Mark Rylance in Farinelli, the joyful silliness of Dracula: Mr. Swallow the Musical, the secret life of YouMeBumBumTrain, the thumping-heartbeats of The Body, the ridiculous and delightful Harlequinade, Sonia Jalaly's extreme exuberance in Happy Birthday Without You which made me laugh until I was crying, the delicate magic of This Is Not a Magic Show, the unexpected rawness of The Solid Life of Sugar Water, the smart and intrepid ensemble in 1972: The Future of Sex, the raw howls of Luke Wright and What I Learned From Johnny Bevan, Sleepwalk Ensemble's haunting Actress, the vivid teen bedroom dreams of Late Night Love, the intense discomfort of Tonight I'm Going to Be the New Me, the creative cacophony of Jess Thom's Backstage in Biscuitland.  

*For the record I’m actually really interested in someone exploring masculinity and its destructive forces on society because I really believe that feminism is about equality and that men suffer from the inequities of society.  Destigmatizing femininity, celebrating the spectrum of masculinity, and allowing men to see themselves outside the confining boxes of contemporary society is something that we’d all benefit from.  But for some reason in 2014 I saw some “boo-hoo” masculinity shows that in my estimation did not go far enough in excavating this.  Making work by men for men with no regard to women and in fact marginalizing women in the process did not, for me, do anything but engage in the kind of erasure I feel like we already experience.  

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