Top 10 of 2016: US edition

In 2016 I promised myself I would cut back on theater.  I saw 90 less shows in 2016 (180) than I did in 2015 (270).  <pats self on the back>

Here are the 10 shows which made me sit up and take notice in 2016.  They range from experimental performance to Shakespeare to experimental Shakespeare to American plays to Broadway musicals.  I seem to have been heavily influenced by strong directorial choices, nuanced character portraits, and some extreme derring-do as well.  

1. Waitress I found myself swimming against critical tides on this show this year but I reveled in the rare pleasure of seeing the female gaze on stage.  I needed this show with its nuanced depiction of female friendships, emotional abuse, cycles of domestic violence, and the reticence of impending motherhood.  Bucking the trend of women who get “punished” for breaking with expectation, these women have sexual agency and make choices that are complicated but in the end, they survive.  The musical is better than the production and there are a few missteps (a catchy, jovial ditty about stalking).  But it felt like it was whispering in my ear, “You are seen.  You matter.”  And having felt for years a massive amount of female erasure in theater this was a welcome addition to the Broadway canon.  

2. Natasha, Pierre, and The Great Comet of 1812 Director Rachel Chavkin strikes again.  This may be a musical with music and lyrics by Dave Malloy but it’s Chavkin and designer Mimi Lien who made this work sing for me.  The lobby of the theater is 21st century Russia—remnants of Soviet brutalist architecture, Pussy Riot posters, and overwhelming sense of gray.  But once you enter the theater it is Imperialist sumptuousness.  You’ve literally made a journey of a century within a few steps.  But the red draped walls are the only traditional thing in the theater.  Instead, an anachronistic, swirling, immersive extravaganza awaits. Though I’m more a fan of the production than the musical, the production pushes hard at our understanding of what a Broadway musical can be in smart and aggressive ways.  The multi-ethnic cast is not a topic of the piece at all.  Similarly, in a ballroom scene when men are dancing with men and women are dancing with women, it’s done with the casualness that should accord such behavior in 2016.  Yet that kind of nonchalance is rare on Broadway.  Characters aren’t usually queer without a declaration or explanation in musicals and it’s welcome relief that they just are.  Bonus points for some Beyonce style explosive entrances that tell us everything we need to know about certain characters.  Chavkin wastes nothing on stage and the moments of quiet magic against boisterous celebration give us a full range of her skills. 

3. Othello:  With The Glass Menagerie in Amsterdam and this production of Othello, Sam Gold has assuredly proved himself as a director who can work wonders with revivals—and revivals of plays I maybe didn’t think I wanted to see.  Using a bold design aesthetic that created the stifling and incestuous environment of an army barrack, soldiers, lovers, rivals, and frenemies are piled into one room with lights up on the audience and together we all see this tragedy through to its inevitable conclusion. Daniel Craig was lighter on his feet than in past NY stage forays and he seemed older, wirier, and yet amped for his turn as Iago. David Oyelowo, on the other hand, read so much younger than Craig (he’s 40 to Craig’s 48) and more of a peer to an adult Desdemona (Rachel Brosnahan avoiding the helpless, fragile characterizations that so often plague Des).  This age dynamic made Iago’s jealousy read more true as someone passed over for a younger rival.  And Othello and Desdemona’s love affair less that of a creepy old man stealing away someone’s child as a young woman knowing her mind and seeking it with a charismatic partner.   The female characters felt stronger and clearer here.  And there are aspects of the production that don't work (why does Bianca live under a table) but more often than not it clicks.

4. Kings of War:  Ivo van Hove can be hit (A View from the Bridge) or miss (Lazarus).  He’s been accused of every theatrical violation under the sun and he’s guilty of many (ignoring the text and misogyny, recently).  But when he has rich source material to dig into (here Henry V, Henry VI, and Richard III), he can peel away excess and somehow find more meaning in the minimalism.  He boils down all this Shakespearean machination to the repetitive process of murder-murder-murder, gain crown, murder-murder-murder, lose crown, rinse, repeat. But in each of these transactions the scars of the past haunt every gain and loss until when finally seen in the aggregate we feel none of these families has gained more than they have lost.  Using a repertory company of actors, familiar faces echo familial lines. Although the piece is 4 hours it breezes by and like the best of durational work it’s the collection of the experience as a whole that changes your understanding of individual parts. Van Hove continues to find unexpected and bold strokes to define the theatrical space— endless hallways, live film projections, sheep, blood, and a bit of rock and roll keep us guessing and intrigued. 

5. Skeleton Crew:  I ended up seeing this play twice and it was worth the extra visit to appreciate the fine work of the performers.  Skeleton Crew by Dominique Morisseau takes places in the midst of Detroit auto industry union workers.  As the characters hang around the break-room of their plant, we watch careful portraits colored with fine brushes.  The guy carrying a gun, the pregnant mother, and and the salty old timer are far from stereotypes and challenge us to look beyond labels. The political backdrop was there but it never overpowered the human drama.  Morisseau wove into her story elements of crime, love, family, homelessness, class, race, and labor.  But months later what stays with me is the human cost of all those issues.  Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s beautiful production made me care about the people in front of me where one woman’s life was lived for decades in front of her union locker.

6. Underground Railroad Game: In one of the most unsettling pieces of theater in 2016, Underground Railroad Game trades in race, sex games, and the Civil War.  An unusual devised piece by Jennifer Kidwell and Scott Sheppard that has the audience motorboating taboos whether they want to be there or not. Once you’ve paid your fare you’re now under the control of artists who will take you on whatever ride they like.  In this case, you will confront power and sex through questions of dominance, submission, and how those issues have cropped up in the racial history of America. And you might even laugh too.  But it's that kind of laugh that will dissipate when you've caught up with the tricks these artists have up their sleeves.  

7. Richard II:  I can't believe I have three Shakespeare productions on my list this year and this was the most traditional of the three. It was an RSC production by Gregory Doran which illuminated the play in a new way and highlighted the talents of David Tennant. When I had seen this play performed before (with the utterly useless Eddie Redmayne in a production by Michael Grandage) I did not really understand how this story of the divine right of kings really resonate in modern society. It felt like a relic of a time and place that no longer offered contemporary parallels. But Doran's production nourished my lawyer's mind, giving Richard's arguments and explanations and monologues a Socratic air. He pressed at language, reason, and discourse to make contradictions read like debate. The tensions of the play were not just between Bolingbroke and Richard but within Richard himself. And it did not have modern meaning, but I understood its place in its world.

8. Yesterday Tomorrow: Annie Dorsen’s algorithmic performance piece had a computer program convert Yesterday by The Beatles into Tomorrow from Annie.  Professional singers followed the computers instructions as the words and notes morphed from one song into the other.  From sense to nonsense back to sense this deconstruction and reconstruction gave us a unique purview on the act of creation. Watching the program find it's way made you root for the computer.  It was strangely beautiful, playful, and joyful. 

9. IronboundMartyna Majok is just starting to get productions in New York and that’s a very good thing.  Her play, Ironbound, with its dark humor, stubborn protagonist, and specific setting made for a powerful introduction to her voice.  She's not afraid of darkness, sentiment, and humor and happily she gives all the best bits to female characters.  Marin Ireland as Darja offered a trenchant portrait of a women who has built walls around herself after years of disappointment, loss, and betrayal.  As we laugh with her at the comedy of life, we feel her dented and damaged soul try to right itself in a complicated and ever challenging world. 

10. Oh, Hello:  I did not expect this show to be such a love letter to cranky New Yorkers of a certain generation and the American theater.  Comedians John Mulaney and Nick Kroll, with high-school drama club powdered hair age themselves up to the spectacular ordinariness of Gil Faison and George St. Geegland. An "actor" and a "writer" who've lived on the Upper West Side in a rent controlled apartment together for 40 years. They fancy themselves artists who've been waiting for their breaks and they are still waiting.   I sort of imagine if things did not work out for Dustin Hoffman’s Michael Dorsey in Tootsie, this is who he would have become—self-serious about his art, bitter about the passage of time, and on a day-to-day basis molesting olives at Fairway.  Mulaney and Kroll, with specificity and precision create an indelible picture of these men and their world.  They exaggerate it just enough to make it comedy but real enough to make it true. New York and its theater subcultures get the right balance of lampoon and love. There is a sweet intimacy to their whackadoodle 40-year friendship.  Gil gingerly holds George's finger like a child clutching at the parent for serenity.  Even if fame has come to them so late, at least they’ve had each other all along. 

Honorable Mentions: Performances, Shows, and Moments that made 2016 Memorable

· It was nice to see 2015 favorites return in 2016, including the still exciting YOUARENOWHERE and the new cast of Small Mouth Sounds (another Chavkin production).

· I could not ignore the brilliant mess and WTF’ness of Rupert Goold’s American Psycho. On the whole it did not work but the entire crew deserves some points for trying and for the weird, fascinating result.

· Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins An Octoroon made my Top 10 in 2014, but Joanna Settle’s production in Philadelphia was like a wholly different beast from Sarah Benson’s New York production and it deserves a mention of its own. With a rap crew on stage and some live chickens, it had an entirely unique feel and demonstrated the great flexibility the underlying play could offer.

· I’m glad Mfoniso Udofia’s Sojourners which will be back in 2017 at NYTW. This play (part of a large series) about the Nigerian diaspora introduced Udofia’s singular voice to me and reminded me how little we see African immigrant stories on stage.

· Sister Sylvester remains one of my favorite companies and this work-in-progress, They Are Gone But Here I Must Remain, about protest, misogyny, and Greece reminded me why. Their approach to narrative is never the easy way in. Multi-layered, non-linear, with a lot of different stylistic tricks, and including a live chicken, this is not what you’d expect and that’s why their work continues to thrill and provoke.

· New downtown actor fave, Alex Grubbs grabbed my attention in Utility and now he’s on my must see list. He also popped up in Leah Nakano Winkler’s funny and dark Kentucky.  

· Lord love Mark Rylance and his spacey, ruminations in Nice Fish.  I'd watch him do just about anything.

· I was totally appreciative of The Secret Garden concert for bringing back Daisy Eagan and reminding me what a beautiful score that show has.

· I’m a sucker for livestock on stage (obviously with all these live chicken references) so I paid a pretty penny to see the opera, De Materie, which had sheep and remote control zeppelins—I have no regrets.  TOTALLY WORTH IT TO SEE LIVE SHEEP ON STAGE.  The zeppelins were an unexpected bonus

· The international collaboration Article 13 about borders, refugees, and immigration set a lot of the Philadelphia waterfront on fire which was cool but the haunting sound of a train to nowhere on top of that stunning setting was something else and I was glad to see how installation performance could be integrated into an outdoor setting.

· It turns out feminist manifesto Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again. by Alice Birch can be done very very well (Soho Rep/Lileana Blain-Cruz) and it can be done really poorly (RSC/Erica Whyman) and I got to see both in 2016.  Not all productions are equal and I was glad to see a radical production that got my blood going and one that was entirely bloodless.

· Scott Pask's interpretive and abstract set in The Cherry Orchard.  

· The strange and ethereal space and time of Daniel Alexander Jones's Duat.

· The Wolves deserves mention for providing space for a large female ensemble and capturing the world and reality of young women today.

· I finally saw A Taste of Honey and it turns out Shelagh Delaney is still a badass in 2016.

· I was late to Adam Rapp's work.  So for me, William Apps, desperate and sweaty-palms, in Purple Lights of Joppa, Illinois was a 2016 discovery.

· Jessica Lange making really interesting, unexpected choices as Mary Tyrone in Long Day's Journey Into Night.  Too bad no one else in the production was on the same probing page.

· Dear Evan Hansen has got some Act 2 issues but I was swept away by the music and lyrics and the quiet sorrow sung in this new musical which got tighter as it moved to Broadway.

· Benedict Andrew's production of A Streetcar Named Desire flickered between swaths of greatness and tedium. However there is a moment when Stanley is drunk and just back from taking Stella to the hospital where Ben Foster clings to the fire escape as the rotating entire set makes its way around the circle.  Whether he is being dragged into Blanche's maelstrom or it's his effort to touch her world, the moment is disturbing and sickening. From there he will rape her.  But in that exact moment, he's suspended and it almost feels like if the set reversed maybe the inevitable would not be so. Ultimately, it is Ben Foster's performance as Stanley here that got me to pay attention.  Rather than play on sex appeal, Foster's Stanley is a beefy, inarticulate, dumb, pontificating mook.  He tries his hardest to cover these things with anger, outrage, power, or punches. Foster's Stanley is a mediocre white man of today (obviously an incredibly handsome movie star version of that but he makes every effort to play that down). For the first time I saw Stanley as not just a man. In this contemporary setting he's the patriarchy which has driven Blanche to her last nerve.  She cannot flirt, reason, or talk her way out of this system that prevents her from being anything without a man but punishes her for succumbing to needs or desire, in a system they built.