This is the first of four blog posts recapping what really turned my crank this year. Nothing’s comprehensive, obviously everything’s hemmed in by what I managed to see/hear (I got better at cataloging the books I read, but not better enough; hopefully next year will include a fave books and a return of fave movies), which is in turn hemmed in by money/a desire to keep my job, time, and sanity.
My year in theater didn’t have the best batting average – sometimes the radar goes wonky. So I only have 10 things that came to mind for the best of the year; I might have had some reservations, but if anyone asked me if they should see any of these things, it was an unequivocal yes. There were a number of things with GREAT, astonishing parts – Laurie Metcalf’s performance and Joe Mantello’s direction in The Other Place; Lily Rabe and Alan Rickman’s work and Sam Gold’s direction in Seminar; the dance sequences to Underworld’s music in Beautiful Burnout; the performances and singing in Falsettos; Acacia Duncan in Hum; big chunks of Thomas Browning’s Burning I’m still processing. But all of those had some unsatisfying element, usually the material. These are ten shows (for lack of a better word, I included opera and dance) I can stand behind… you know, if anyone asked.
1. Satyagraha by Philip Glass and Constance DeJong (Metropolitan Opera, NYC) – The first Glass opera I’d ever seen live though I’d been a fan for a long time, and I was stunned. An orchestra of organ, woodwinds and strings, no brass or percussion, a small cast, a set of headlines and corrugated metal all added up to one of the most moving things I’ve ever seen on a stage. Waves of diamond, glittering sound subsuming you and tossing you up, and Richard Croft’s Gandhi was an injection of pure light in his phrasing and singing, a tenor you’re lucky to see once. I was in tears a few times, and the climax of the second act was an image that I think will always stick with me.
2. Passing Strange by Stew and Heidi Rodewald (Balliwick, Chicago) – The first midwestern production of Passing Strange worked like a charm, partly thanks to JC Brooks and the Uptown Sound in the place of Stew and his band. The band was smaller and tighter and Brooks sank his teeth into the material coming up with a different take: angrier, more physically present, that was electrifying. And the rest of the cast was pitch-perfect, especially Steven Perkins as Youth and LaNisa Renee Frederick as his mother. As with last year’s Merrily We Roll Along this is the rare revival that made me wish so badly there was a recording (any bootleggers, get at me) and when I listen to my original cast recording these are the faces I see.
3. Skyscrapers of the Midwest by Matt Slaybaugh, adapted from Joshua Cotter (Available Light) - A meditation on growing up, with its intertwined braids of sex, pain, and death. The way the town you grow up in can hem you in and suffocate you but always takes you back. With dinosaurs and robot heroes! As pure a jolt of fizzy adrenaline, mainlined sugar with just enough sour to keep its edge, as anything I’ve ever seen. And a great middle finger to anyone who says comic books don’t make good theater.
4. A Short History of Crying by Sanja Mitrovic (La MaMa ETC, NYC) - Sanja Mitrovic’s one woman show at La Mama (as part of a Croatian theater festival in New York) was the most physical, immediate thing I saw all year. If she’d grabbed me by the collar and performed the work right into my face it wouldn’t have been more striking. Different narratives that all illuminate the different reasons for/meanings of crying through epic political tragedy and folk songs. The different ways to be broken are dealt out, seemingly at random, until the mosaic she was building all along is clear. This is hobbled by its last 5 minutes (in this case, celebrity impressions), but everything up to that is so good it can charge that to the game.
5. L’Effet de Serge by Philip Quesne (Vivarium Studios, Wexner Center for the Arts) – This is exactly the kind of thing that makes the Wexner Center invaluable to Columbus. A French play that left me walking out the door (and the couple miles home) skating on air. A gorgeous ars poetica that puts the common every day and simple, childlike play at the very core of art. Which we should all do well to remember, whatever our individual art is.
6. The Rehearsal: Playing the Dane adapted from William Shakespeare (Pan Pan, Wexner Center for the Arts) – I wasn’t the biggest fan of Pan Pan’s punk rock Oedipus that came through town a couple of years ago that felt to me like more sizzle than steak, but this made up for that big. A deconstructed Hamlet with the requisite in-jokes (a great dane that maybe is only there because he’s a great dane, but cute dogs are almost never wrong on stage). However, the look at different interpretations in the first act turning into a really moving, condensed take on Hamlet and the acid trails of interpretations that could have been in the second was satisfying as a riff on Shakespeare, satisfying as a riff on theatrical history, and satisfying as a piece of theatre in its own right (though I wouldn’t recommend seeing it unless you already know Hamlet a little bit).
7. Southern Bound Comfort by Gregory Maqoma and Sid Larbi Cherakoui (Wexner Center for the Arts) - One of the best examples I’ve seen of the way dance can subvert and transcend the body even while making the rest of us more aware that we’re living in our own skin. The noose tree and the noose baby were provocative, powerful images but the way they were arrived at and then worked with was so fresh and the movements so subtle they were even more shocking in the aftermath of the dance.
8. Just Kids by Sean Lewis (Available Light) - Everything I see Sean Lewis in trumps the last thing which already hit me so hard my teeth rattled. And this take on his father through different stages of his life is a damn tour de force. His portrayal of “Rick” is searing but with a deep empathy and massive amounts of charm, and the way tape is incorporated is better than anything this side of Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape. The writing crackles like everything he does but there’s a much stronger use of space and silence this time, the pauses make everything feel lived in and Matt Slaybaugh’s direction balances that without letting the audience catch our breath.
9. How to Live Safely in a Science Fiction Universe by Jennifer Fawcett and Matt Slaybaugh, adapted from Charles Yu (Available Light) - Available Light’s second comic book adaptation in a 12 month period (different seasons) and it’s also a home run. Elena Perantoni-Fehr’s a wonder as always and her work as the computer who is almost as emotionally stunted as the protagonist is funny, flirty, and very moving. Ian Short’s perfect as the nerd forced into becoming an active participant in his own life, a grippingly physical performance. Jennifer Fawcett and Matt Slaybaugh’s adaptation is just about flawless, Dave Wallingford’s technical cues went off seamlessly (except when showing the seams made it more immediate). The work pulls its punches with an easy moral and too much explaining in the last few minutes, but everything up till then is a great Dr. Who episode written by Samuel Beckett. Your inner child is sadder than you remember.
10. House/Divided by James Gibbs, Moe Angeleos, and Marianne Weems (Builders’ Association, Wexner Center for the Arts) - I already wrote at length about this show, but Builders Association attempt to draw connections between the dustbowl (via Grapes of Wrath) and the digital dust bowl the country’s facing now was mostly a worldbeater. The contemporary stuff had some flaws in the specifics but the Steinbeck was perfectly realized and the technology was magnificent. Giant spectacle that was always underpinned by a crushing sadness, the scope only intensified the pain and desperation. Muddy water takin’ back the land.
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