Sunday, December 31, 2017

Top 10 of 2017 (US and UK edition)

Since I did not end up going to Edinburgh this year I did not have enough shows in the UK to make a separate top 10 list.  So I'm combining US and UK shows this year because it's my list and I'm in charge.  It was a quieter year for me without Edinburgh so a reasonable 171 shows in 2017 from New York, London, Boulder, CO, Pittsfield, MA, Princeton, NJ, and Washington, DC.  

1. Hamlet: I missed my flight and really wondered whether it was worth fighting to get on a plane to see yet another Hamlet in London.  It turned out the hellacious planes-trains-automobiles journey I had to see Robert Icke's Hamlet was well-worth it and one of the most instructive Hamlets I have ever seen in my life. I had seen Andrew Scott on stage before and not been particularly blown away.  But here he was Hamlet without artifice or performance.  He walked on stage as Hamlet and found a way to make the text contemporary, casual, and organic.  Icke's use of meta-textual scenes to fill in some character gaps made for a more fluid and psychologically complete Hamlet. There was nothing more I could have asked for from this Hamlet except a chance to have seen it multiple times. 

2. SpongeBob SquarePants: Perhaps the reward to surviving 2017 is the ever-loving joy provided by SpongeBob SquarePants the musical. Dumb, silly, smart, and big-hearted this musical shows us the dark power of the mob and demonstrates that resistance, however small or personal, requires courage and conviction.  SpongeBob embraces fluid gender expression, alternative lifestyles (squirrels living under the sea), and following your dreams even in the face of skepticism. It’s this optimism in contrast to our dark days that is the musical’s greatest strength. Director Tina Landau finds dynamic and creative ways to tell her story. The visual language of the musical, the casual queerness of its approach, and the smart way she does more with less (even within a big budget, blow-out production) make this a musical that needs to be both felt and seen.

3. Richard III: Thomas Ostermeier’s Richard III is full of congealed blood running in rivulets through sand, a mouth stuffed with mashed potatoes then smeared across a face as a mask, and on some nights, perhaps, some live urination. But the collective gunk and grime of the production, is nothing compared to the white-hot comet playing Richard, who streaks across the stage, sometimes naked, Lars Eidinger. A full throttle performance, he paces the aisles in search of co-conspirators, supporters, or simply audience members too stunned to look away. He feeds not only on our glances but demands our participation. We shout along with him like the world’s most murderous emcee. In our shock, enthusiasm, and demented glee, he brings forth a Richard we want to fuck, marry, and kill. It’s a hard balance to strike—a charisma so powerful we lean in and a level of violence and horror we cannot look away. For once you might understand how Lady Anne, in the midst of grief over the murder of her husband, could be successfully wooed by the man who killed him. She spits at him and kisses him and in this production, you’re entirely in sync with her repulsion/attraction.

4. Torch Song: Up until this show, somehow I had missed the Michael Urie boat.  So I’m glad I finally caught up with everyone else. Urie's performance in Torch Song was big and small in equal measure and in gentle rhythm with the play itself. His character, Arnold, is after all, a drag queen with the heart and presence of a performer. He has a tendency to live big. But he’s also a man who just wants a love he can depend on. So there’s the quiet, self-reflective side of Arnold to tend to as well. Urie is both hilarious and dramatic, reticent and wounded. Even if the play represents a very specific moment in time in gay culture, it was nice to see it revived now. The setting may be a time capsule of sorts but the emotional core of the work—the perpetual search for love and respect on your terms—remains relevant.

5. The Glass Menagerie: Sam Gold can thrill and disappoint in equal measure. His dramaturgy can be generously described as loose. But his Glass Menagerie has evolved since I saw his original production in Dutch two years ago.  In the Broadway production he cast an actress with a disability in the role of Laura. There is a heightened interdependence between the family members. Rather than the overwrought, melodramatic, and clingy Amanda Wingfield, here we see a family who desperately needs Tom, financially and physically.  That said, the women are not the fragile creatures Tom thinks of them as. Tom may shatter but Laura does not. Gold finds an agency in Laura that is rare in most Menageries.  

6. Villa: Guillermo Calderon’s Chilean drama asks what should happen to the site of General Pinochet’s Villa Grimaldi—the center of rape, torture, and trauma for many. But he’s also asking us to think about how we recognize the past, how we move forward, and how we remember. As the country goes through a process of public expurgation of sexual assaults, rape, and harassment, I return over and over to this play where three women consider what this site of trauma means to them and what it would mean to preserve it, destroy it, or something in between. For every person impacted, there is a different opinion. Calderon wants us to think around each scenario. There is no one experience. There is no universal truth. So we must see the variation. We must talk about the variation. We cannot settle on a simplistic answer. The answer is the conversation. This play could be revived every year—its Chilean setting is incredibly specific but its meaning is evergreen.

7. Angels in America: Despite not loving all aspects of Marianne Elliott's production of Angels in America, it is on this list because of the performances which were so distinct from the original Broadway cast's.  It is always a gift to see a work you think you know in a new light.  I had never quite seen Joe's frustrating neediness, or Louis's fragility in the way I saw them here.  Any idea that Louis and Joe could be together,gets totally obliterated in this production. I also appreciated being able to see the public and private personas of Prior.  His quiet, less performative side made for some touching early aspects of the Prior-Louis relationship. I'm looking forward to revisiting it when it comes to Broadway in the spring.

8. Anatomy of a Suicide:  Not all plays by women are structured around the female gaze, but Alice Birch's play was remarkable in both it's approach and Katie Mitchell's production for doing just that. The way in which characters were stripped down to their underwear and rebuilt over and over showed us the way our public presenting personas are constructed.  The overlapping text, imagery, and undivided space represented the mixture of memory and shared family history but that structure also allowed for the emotional truth to emerge in a non-traditional way.  Rather than being told the story, the narrative felt like it emerged from a chrysalis.  By bucking the traditional thrusting male narrative of linearity, the circular, throbbing agony of these women's lives was felt more readily.  Maybe akin to birth, these lives spilled forth in all their messy, painful, confusing truth.   I sat in stunned silence when it ended.

9. School Girls: Or, the African Mean Girls Play: One thing I’ve come to relish, the more theater I see, is a narrative I’ve never seen before. Jocelyn Bioh’s play may follow a formula that is reminiscent of a teen movie, but it really pushes into a new space because it addresses a mixture of African-American and African experiences. Set in the 1980’s a private girls school, the gossipy controlling mean girl Paulina is not all evil. In fact, each character has a story that informs the nature of her behavior. And these are not stories we always see on stage.  Funny, smart, and a female-centric exploration of colorism, the patriarchy, and how we do damage to each other, Bioh's play made for an exciting first play and I'm eager to see what else she writes.

10. Oh, What a Sweet Land: In a small Brooklyn apartment, an actor chops onions. As the smell carries my eyes begin to water. My eyes are nearly swollen shut with the assault of these onions. They are not just part of the food the character is preparing--a connection to her Syrian background--but they are act of violence itself.  There is no escaping the Syrian refugee struggle in this room and the fact that the production reaches out and hits you in the tear ducts is only one layer of how the play works its powerful effects on the audience. 

Honorable Mentions

These were also some wonderful discoveries, experiences, and moments from 2017 theater:

The invitation to belong at My Lingerie Play; the feral performances and grotty set of Yen; the collective shouts of young people in Riot Antigone; the subversive play under the play in Penelope Skinner's Linda; the political nuance of Home/Sick; Allison Janney in Six Degrees of Separation; the sonic booms of 1984 the play; the very much now of Fulfillment Center; the totally unnecessary dildos on shelves in Measure for Measure and Cara Ricketts in that production; Gideon Glick breaking hearts in Samuel D. Hunter's Clarkston; the fact that it was better than you thought it might be Bandstand; Erin Markey’s outfit in Assassins; Annie Dorsen's slumber-party of internet voices in The Great Outdoors; That one Princeton student in Branden Jacobs-Jenkins's Gurls who is like the next Kate McKinnon; the set change in Time and The Conways; the hats in Glassheart; about 10 minutes at the end of Illyria when you can practically smell the rain and the possibilities; Robbie Fairchild dancing his limbs off in Brigadoon; that moment I started to hallucinate in Daniel Fish's Don't Look Back; those confrontations in Jitney; the murder basement of Blankland; the all-encompassing universe of Once on this Island’s production; Oscar Isaac’s thighs that were not situationally sexy in Hamlet and yet they were there; the undercurrent of sexism in The Antipodes; Sam Gold's graveyard scene in Hamlet; Susan Pourfar in Mary Jane; the KPOP battle of the bands (Team Oracle 4-eva); Denise Gough in People, Places & Things. 

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