Theatre in Columbus is having something of a renaissance in the last few years, at least to my eyes. I’ve always loved seeing a play but I remember some lean years where there was very little I wanted to catch. I put theatre and dance on the same list this time because – and I know this is wrong – I tend to approach dance in some ways from a text perspective. I respect what it uniquely does, but I still tend to lump it in my head with plays/monologues.
1. Merrily We Roll Along by Stephen Sondheim and George Furth, Available Light, August 21, 2010 – I think I’ve done enough gushing about this show. But while I juggled and hemmed and hawed over much of this list, there wasn’t even a second when AVL’s take on an under-regarded Sondheim play wasn’t at the top of it. First thing I’ve ever seen Heather Carvel in and she was a revelation. Ian Short was as amazing as he always is. The direction caught both the youthful angst and what happens to the dreams of youth perfectly. And when my ipod runs across the off-Broadway cast recording, these are the people I see and the voices my head hears.
2. Fences by August Wilson, NYC, April 14, 2010 – Obviously one of the greatest plays of the last quarter of the 20th century, and probably my third favorite August Wilson, plus I’d never seen it live. I was planning to see this before I realized it had this perfect cast. For acting firepower it doesn’t get much better than this. Denzel Washington is a hurricane of charm and rage and love all trying desperately to be controlled and to run wild. And Viola Davis matches him note for note but does it with stillness, with silence, and with one gesture to a hundred of his perfectly in-the-moment gesticulations. Mykleti Williamson works the audience’s preconceptions like a master violinist and stabs you right between the ribs when you’re not expecting it. I’d tell you I didn’t cry during this but I’d be lying.
3. Them (2010) by Ishmael Houston-Jones, Dennis Cooper and Chris Cochrane, PS122, NYC, October 21, 2010 – I’m a big fan of all three of these gentlemen, but I’d never seen any of them in the flesh, and the original production of this roughly 25 years ago is still spoken of with an incredible reverence. The early solo Ishmael Houston-Jones dances himself jammed my heart into my throat until I thought I’d choke or break into a million pieces, like the first time I heard Amiri Baraka read or Peter Brotzmann play saxophone or Diamanda Galas sing, an utterly unique vocabulary getting expressed so perfectly you’re not sure anyone else can ever use it. But of course, the younger dancers peopling most of this revival/reimagination are fantastic, alone and together and all together and alone again. Cochrane’s electric guitar was all chopped chords, whiplash feedback, emotions exploding before they happen with the dancers and shadowing the explosions, propping the characters up and bridging the dance and the text. Cooper’s text is every bit as good as the other two legs of this triangle, not matching the dance except in brief moments – and those synchronicities as are shocking a gun getting fired – but informing it and showing another perspective on the plague and the desperation we still aren’t out of, told in a dryly funny voice that hits you with a sadness it lulled you into not expecting from the beginning, “I thought what they were doing was love.” Maybe the most harrowing thing in any medium I saw all year but also the most life-affirming.
4. In the Red and Brown Water by Tarrell Allen McCraney, Steppenwolf, Chicago, February 21, 2010 – My only regret with this is that I wasn’t in Chicago long enough to see the other two connected Brother/Sister Plays while we were there, because this was stunning. Set in the projects of Louisiana in a time never quite specified, or perhaps out of time, and focusing on very current despair and joy but also Yoruba ritual. I want everyone writing urban fantasy/American magic realism to see this and see how much juice there still is in the form, how much emotional and metaphoric weight it can still have. Drumming and singing and astonishing acting, especially Rodrick Covington and Alana Arenas, and a script that draws the line between our past that keeps us down, our past that shows a way out, and goes straight through your heart.
5. Pride and Prejudice by Daniel Elihu Kramer (adapted from Jane Austen), Available Light, January 14, 2010 – A great adaptation of one of my favorite all-time novels that opens it up in pacing and modernizes it a little by bringing in the current currents of conversation but keeps its heart and its intensity intact. Eleni Papaleonardos’ direction keeps the threads balanced and keeps the production moving at just enough of a clip to make an impact and keep the audiences engaged. Great performances all around, especially Kim Garrison Hopcraft, Michelle Schroeder and Wolf Sherrill. I was so in love with this I probably convinced 20 people to go who hadn’t seen a play since they were in college.
6. Hughie by Eugene O’Neill and Krapp’s Last Tape by Samuel Beckett, Goodman Theater, Chicago, February 20, 2010 – Two takes on the tragedy of aging, two takes on classic-period modernism, and a showcase for Brian Dennehy that shook me to my core. The moment where he starts to sing in Krapp’s Last Tape is one of those moments where you realize you’re watching one of the great stage actors just sinking into a role, collapsing on himself. Electricity all around.
7. 837 Ventura Boulevard by Faye Driscoll, Wexner Center, November 19, 2010 – A fantastic, hilarious dance trio by Faye Driscoll that opened with her singing Will Oldham’s “I Am a Cinematographer” while shadowboxing and improvising half the lyrics and opened up into a friend-triangle that’s poisoning everyone involved. Taking you from goofy joy right through the rage underpinning the joy, the trying to have a good time mostly to show up people.
8. The Aliens by Annie Baker, Rattlestick, NYC, April 18, 2010 – It took the full first act for this to click for me, but once it did, it hit like a ton of bricks. The three characters on the one set of the back porch of a coffeeshop in Vermont, perfectly directed by Sam Gold, with the viewpoint character, Jasper, learning from the older two through mimicry and through reading behind what they’re saying to see the cautionary tale. Acting’s amazing, there’s as much beauty in the moment when Michael Chernus as KJ said, “Frogmen sing together” near the end of the first act as in anything I saw this year, and the writing takes naturalism and makes it ineffably, miraculously strange.
9. Red by John Logan, Donmar New York, NYC, April 17, 2010 – On paper, there was a lot of reason to worry about this. A two-hander built around arguments about art between Mark Rothko and a fictional assistant by the man who wrote Gladiator? But it was electric and heartbreaking, Alfred Molina gave a tour-de-force performance and Eddie Redmayne actually gave him a run for his money, not afraid to go toe-to-toe with him, to get dirty. And the writing really captures those rhythms and keeps you moving with a few arias that’ll make the hair on your arms stand up.
10. A Free Man of Color by John Guare, Lincoln Center, NYC, October 24, 2010 – Frankly, this play’s a little bit of a mess, three hours long with it seems like 30 characters, spread out over two continents, and in the style of a restoration comedy. But I was both as purely entertained as I’ve been all year, and as in awe as if I was watching a tightrope walk. Jeffrey Wright is amazing (as expected) and hilarious (not quite as expected)as Jacques Cornet in a broader way than I’ve ever seen from him and he’s surrounded by a cast studded with pitch-perfect supporting actors. A whirlwind of euphemisms for Cornet’s penis, leaping behind and out of curtains, and a self-awareness that they’re all in a play that mirrors the time period and the precarious social situation and artifice of New Orleans, most heartbreakingly when the main character in a fit of desperation summons Thomas Jefferson to address his complaints to his new ruler. It made me feel good to see someone going out and making this kind of ambitious antithesis-of-black-box theater.
11. Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare, Actor’s Theatre, July 24, 2010 – My favorite Shakespeare comedy in a venue I’ve loved since I saw my first girlfriend at 16 in Titus Andronicus, and the best production of this I’ve ever seen. Staged in neo-realism’s Italy, a performance by Eleni Papaleonardos as Beatrice that had my jaw in my lap, a very strong Travis Horseman as Benedick and a stunning Acacia Duncan, there was nothing I didn’t like about this.
12. The Great War by Hotel Modern, Wexner Center, January 21, 2010 – Hotel Modern basically performed a live WWI movie with narration and sound effects exclusively using miniatures. Indelible images and even performances all drawn out of plastic and digital video, affirming the belief in theater being whatever an artist thinks it is.
13. The Absurdity of Writing Poetry by Matt Slaybaugh, Available Light, March 21, 2010 – One of the first Available Light shows which I heard about but didn’t catch at the time, now revived as a once-per-season tradition. A cut up/original text hybrid going through Slaybaugh’s influences, winding through the danger of making art, the double danger that no one will care, and ultimately that if you need to do it you need to do it anyway. I wanted to have a few crybaby Columbus bands/writers who focus (by which I mean whine about, not take steps to actually build it) a little too much on their audience instead of their art watch this, because it’s a perfect example of how good, how invigorating, and how full of and in touch with life this kind of ars poetica can be.
14. Penelope by Enda Walsh, Druid Theatre Company, NYC, October 23, 2010 – There’s definitely a masturbatory element to this, both in the language and in the characters, it’s ostensibly about Odysseus’ wife but she never moves past being “Odysseus’ wife”, she’s a trophy for the four men hanging out in an empty swimming pool drinking gin to fight amongst themselves over. They know the end is coming and their wooing is an all-angles portrait of stinking desperation, not just for their lives but also for an era, and you don’t ever really feel for them but I stayed on the edge of my seat and laughed my ass off.
15. Stop Sign Language by Eleni Papaleonardos, Available Light, September 17, 2010 – One person show premiering this year written by and starring Eleni Papleonardos (who’s made an appearance on this list a few times), about her growing up with dyslexia, her growing up in a bilingual house and how language develops, all braided together because that’s how life works, it’s not easily separated or distilled down to its components. Very funny and incredibly moving.