Monday, December 28, 2015

Top 10 of 2015: U.S. Edition

Another year of broken promises to myself.  An effort to see less theater this year resulted in me seeing 60 more shows over last year.  New personal record: 265 shows. Eeeek. Stop the madness, Nicole.  I also reached my lifetime 1000th show this fall.  

Due to theater calendars and Broadway transfers, I saw a number of shows last year which came back this year.  I did not include them in my 2015 Top 10 because they have previously appeared in my lists. Just so you don't think I forgot them, these shows would have appeared on my Top 10 this year if I had not seen them before:  An Octoroon, The Flick, Fun Home, King Charles III, A View from the Bridge.

Here's my Top 10 for 2015 for the US (the UK edition is pending).

1. YOUARENOWHERE (PS122/COIL): I had never attended PS122's COIL festival before. I picked this show randomly out of the catalog on the basis of a reference to "missed connections" in the description. It turned out to be a life-changing piece of theater and I instantly became a devotee of the artist who created the show, Andrew Schneider (my interview with him is here).   Nothing in theater surprises me anymore and this show managed to do so a lot—which is why it’s number one. We did a podcast about it where I broke down crying. But much of its power comes from the fact that I walked in knowing nothing about it. So I won't say anymore. Don't miss it when it comes back to New York and to London in 2016. (I received a complimentary ticket).

2. Hamilton (The Public/Broadway): Yes. Lin-Manuel Miranda's new musical is as good as everyone says it is. In fact, it might even be a bit better. This hip-hop musical about the founding fathers pushes at all the boundaries of what we know musicals to be through its casting, musical references, and visual language. It's cute how I worried that it would not find an audience on Broadway because of the hard-to-market subject matter (a rap battle about the banking system, whaaaaaaaat). It's so fricking popular I probably will never get a chance to see it again. But it benefits from multiple views (I saw it three times but I'll never be satisfied) because of the rich text and intersecting concepts. Sure the cast recording is out there and every kid, adult, and senior from New York to Tasmania is singing along with it, but it's a whole other thing to witness the work of Tommy Kail's direction, Andy Blankenbuehler's choreography, Howell Binkley's lighting design, and the performances of the incredible cast. Their voices may be captured on the cast recording but the work they are doing on stage is a lot more subtle and nuanced. It needs to be seen. I’ll never forget the first time I saw Daveed Diggs and lost my shit. And for those of us who saw Renee Elise Goldsberry kill it in IGMATATIOTR seeing her get to take a major part in a major musical is a worthwhile payoff.  Most of all, you need to see the staging of Satisfied. Theater perfection. Book now for 2017.

3. Small Mouth Sounds (Ars Nova): Bess Wohl's play performed mostly in silence by a talented cast really pushed at the idea of what a play can accomplish. Without much dialogue, we understood these fully developed characters and emotionally engaged. Director Rachel Chavkin guided these performances and the simple story perfectly. It also reminds me of why sometimes work should be seen in a small intimate setting. Some theater is best up-close and personal and this play's semi-immersive setting made you feel like you'd gone upstate to a retreat yourself. The characters made their own discoveries and so had I. (I received a complimentary ticket).

4. John (Signature Theatre):  Annie Baker writes another one of her conventional-unconventional plays. With an evocative setting and the intense focus on a romantic relationship, Baker moves in a new direction. But her ability to take something small and personal and suffuse it with sweeping meaning remains. Taking big swings at nostalgia, childhood, religion, spirituality, mental illness, and abuse, her four characters manage to meaningfully wrestle with these big ideas in ways that are unique to them. Her work makes me glad to be alive right now. And the creative team behind this show (Mimi Lien's detailed set, Bray Poor's layered sound design, Sam Gold's astute direction) only added to the strength of the show.

5. Nice Girl (Labyrinth Theatre): Melissa Ross's play about a woman who lives at home with her mother and dreams of another life was heart-breaking. As the play teased out the quiet defeats in an unspectacular life and hope in the face of disappointment, Diane Davis made every moment on stage as the drifting Josephine count. Nick Cordero and Liv Rooth completed this solid ensemble and created rich characters full of good qualities and bad. Everything about this play made me ache and feel. That’s a great night at the theater.  (I received a complimentary ticket).

6. Oklahoma! (Fisher Center/Bard):  Daniel Fish's stripped-down, immersive Oklahoma made a creeky, traditional show feel vibrant and new.  His unconventional approach to the ending turned the question of American expansion on its head and emphasized the political elements of the musical which had always been there but I’d never noticed them before.  With a cast and staging that dial-ed up the sex appeal, I can only hope this show returns for another engagement.  More people need to see this if for no other reason than to see what can be done with older material.  This makes a great case for the need for smart, innovative revivals.   

7. 10 out of 12 (Soho Rep): Anne Washburn’s play about a play in tech may not have been as epic as Mr. Burns but it again pushed at theater form in an exciting and joyful way. With a complicated soundscape (designed by Bray Poor), the audience wore headphones and the “theater” played out on stage for our eyes and off stage in our ears. Getting at the heart of collaboration and the ephemera of art, Washburn’s play and Les Waters’s production made the labor of creation anything but laborious. Wonderful performances and a unique experience.

8. Guards at the Taj (Atlantic Theater): When we started to talk about this show on the year-end podcast I got really emotional. Rajiv Joseph's play about two friends who see the world in different ways was a surprising mix of history and humanity. And yes an unexpected bit of staging may have turned a lot of heads. But the bond between the two friends is what I come back to when I think about the show--the intensity of their love for each other and the depth of anguish when they act in contravention of that relationship. Omar Metwally and Arian Moayed made it all just click. Amy Morton's staging was not too shabby either.

9. Futurity (Soho Rep/Ars Nova): I was little burned out on theater when I finally got to see Futurity (hence no review at the time) but beyond my personal mental haze I knew I was watching something special. It was strange, moving, and far from a traditional musical and yet the scale and style of the production fit the homemade feel to the show. Cesar Alvarez and Sammy Tunis improvised chats between scenes made the intense story about the Civil War, protest, and progress go down easier. Those charming moments gave balance and perspective to the darker parts of the story. And it was weird in the best possible way. With a lovely score, idiosyncratic style, and surprises galore, this musical makes me hopeful for the future of musicals.

10. Theater For One: I'm Not the Stranger You Think I Am (In a box):  5 minutes of Will Eno’s play Late Days in the Era of Good Feelings was better than most full-length shows I saw this year. This collection of one-on-one theater shorts was a fun, intimate theater experience.  But Eno's short used the format to its greatest advantage and with his usual dark humor I wanted to stay in that theater booth forever, lost in his language and imagination.  This may be someone’s idea of hell but certainly my idea of heaven.  (I received a complimentary ticket).

For the many performances, shows, productions, and moments in 2015, these are some Honorable Mentions:  Attacking class issues with heart-breaking accuracy, Stephen Karam's The Humans reminds us all of the distance between our former suburban lives and trying to carve out a New York existence, Kenneth Collins and Temporary Distortion making durational work rock and roll with My Voice Has an Echo in It,  Marcus Youssef and James Long showing how debate in theater can be smart, funny, and dynamic in Winners and Losers, Taylor Mac’s queering of history and music history in his massive song cycle A 24-Decade History of Popular Music, John Tiffany and Jack Thorne making vampires on stage truly frightening in Let the Right One In, John Cameron Mitchell’s second coming as Hedwig showing us all why he was our favorite in the first place, The Civilians joyous exploration of the porn industry in Pretty Filthy, Patti Murin’s delectable turn in Lady Be Good, Robert Falls smart and elegant staging of The Iceman Cometh, Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig showing the ugliness of progress in The World of Extreme Happiness, Larissa FastHorse making incendiary theater with a reading of her play What Would Crazy Horse Do, Justin Guarini proving his rightful place in musical theater in Paint Your Wagon and Company, Fun Home getting even better on Broadway and making us all cry over and over again, Sufjan Stevens agonizing grief while touring his new album about the death of his mother, Richard Eyre’s fast and furious production of Ibsen’s Ghosts, the corroded glass wall in Ghosts (designed by Tim Hatley) being a great fucking metaphor and gorgeous piece of stagecraft, that moment Ken Watanabe as The King reaches for Kelli O’Hara’s Anna to dance and the temperature in the room went up several degrees, Emily Schwend’s excavation of mansplaining and female rage in The Other Thing, Donna Lynne Champlin being incredible in the difficult to swallow Bruce Norris play The Qualms, that scene, you know the one, in Cuddles, which was a whole other level of horror in a show about a vampire, Abby Rosebrock’s hilarious and sad Singles in Agriculture, some shows I can’t talk about that I saw at the O’Neill Center as works-in-progress that give me hope for the future of theater, Karen Pittman’s swagger in King Liz, Erin Markey’s wackadoo walking tour Daddy Warbucks Please Adopt Me, the remarkable Cymbeline in the Park that made sense, that one little girl with a bow on her head who was so full of verve in Public Works production of The Odyssey, Deaf West’s Spring Awakening which almost made me like a musical I really dislike and a cast of Broadway newbies who I hope get cast in more musicals, James Macdonald’s riveting production of Caryl Churchill’s Cloud Nine (even if the seating was agonizing), the Eclipsed ensemble, Paul Soileau’s naked performance lecture on creating and inhabiting his stage personas,  Chris Gethard’s Career Suicide, an honest and difficult stand-up storytelling show about suicide and depression.

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