Monday, December 10, 2012

Best of 2012: Theater and Dance

I know, it's been a while, trying to get my groove back. Please bear with a few posts of me stretching and shaking the rust off. This is the first of five posts highlighting art that shook me like a rag doll. This year really saw a flourishing of interesting Columbus theater which luckily coincided with my not getting out of town quite as much or for quite as long (the first year since I was 18 where I didn't get to Chicago once and one of my two New York trips was mostly for the fantastic wedding of two very dear friends, so no regrets but I was pulled in different directions).

These are the 10 shows I can unreservedly recommend as worth seeing. There might have been some rough parts or a false note here and there, but I came out very glad I was in the room to be part of the experience. There were other things I really liked large chunks of - Jordan Fehr and Drew Eberly's performances in Sleeper; the entire cast in the revival of Vidal's The Best Man; the singing and use of repetition in The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart; the interesting, raw arrangements and band, and Josie Merkle's heartbreaking performance in Cabaret - but those shows didn't sing for me all the way. Not like the list below.

Everything is in Columbus unless otherwise specified.

  1. Einstein on the Beach by Philip Glass, Lucinda Childs and Robert Wilson (University of Michigan, Ann Arbor) - I love my friends and I love art and I never thought I'd have a chance to see a real production of this. The icing on a fantastic road trip up to Ann Arbor and Einsteinretains its striking weirdness as much as its uncanny beauty. It was fascinating to compare this to the production of Satyagraha I saw at the Met last year: Einstein felt like it reveled in its disconnections, and where the music wasn't as lush it was so loaded with hooks information overload set in within minutes. It sent me into fugue states of color when my consciousness couldn't process for a little while, it made my jaw heavy and my eyes wide, and it fueled overheated conversation about what seemingly nonsensical lines like a "prematurely air-conditioned laundromat" or "we need some wind for the sailboat" or "check the hems" meant. I couldn't have asked a piece of art to do more than this did and I couldn't believe how much this delivered on decades of living only in whispers.

  2. Uncle Vanya by Anton Chekhov adapted by Annie Baker (SoHo Rep, NYC) - Apparently it was the summer of the Vanya revivals in New York this year, but my schedule only let me have a trip that overlapped with Annie Baker's re-imagining. Sam Gold's direction was both constantly surprising and calibrated so that every decision felt inevitable. The translation crackled and the acting was the best I saw on a stage all year - orbiting around Michael Shannon and Reed Birney's two dissolving sculptures of ambition and grief, but no one didn't come with their best game. I had lines stuck in my head for weeks after seeing this, including "Your uselessness has infected us all" and "I've come to believe we're all creeps" and the set design was just the right mix of lived-in and nigh-gothic decay, the unconventional seating was worth exactly the toll it took on my knees and back.

  3. Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson by Alex Timbers and Michael Friedman (Available Light) - In their third year of doing musicals, Available Light synthesized the company's overarching interest in the raw materials of creation and its metamorphosis (and what gets left in its wake) in a show that swung for the fences and just plain swung. The direction from Matt Slaybaugh and musical direction from Pam Welsh-Huggins kept all the spinning plates going a work with this many threads and characters needed, it could have fallen apart but it flew. People I expect to be great - Elena Perantoni, Ian Short, Eleni Papaleonardos, Emily Bach - were as good as I've ever seen them; people who hadn't made the biggest impression on me in their earlier work blew me away, particularly Whitney Thomas Eads; and the whole cast orbited around the swaggering, tragic Nick Lingnofski who was pitch-perfect. Additional attention should be paid to the band featuring Sean Gardner from Winter Makes Sailors and Jeff Wiseman from Mors Ontologica, one of the best uses of a rock band on stage I've ever seen in a musical, and used for one of the biggest fourth-wall-breaking laughs.

  4. 4000 Miles by Amy Herzog (Lincoln Center Theatre, NYC) - Jesus Christ. I know I caught grief for comparing this to Pinter, and it's muchwarmer, but Herzog's astonishing play had that deep, tense silence, the real subject was what was behind the words and that same terror of connection. This was the kind of play that reminds me how much I love theater. Gabriel Ebert's Leo, almost crushed under the grief of his friend's death did an amazing job of showing the charm underneath but also trying to consciously eschew it, Mary Louise Wilson's Vera avoided the "sassy older woman who says what everyone is thinking" cliches and was heartbreaking and hilarious, maybe second only to Shannon's Astrov for a performance I just wanted to keep watching for hours. Daniel Aukin's direction was wire-tight and made every moment sing just enough without feeling like underlining.

  5. The Past is a Grotesque Animal by Mario Pensotti (Wexner Center for the Arts) - At every turn this could have gone too precious, too cute. Four actors going through scenes from 10 years of a group of halfway-aimless young friends on a stage that rotated like a turntable and it's named after an Of Montreal song? But slowly, like the damaged photographys Pensotti alluded to in his making of the work, each tiny gesture, each banal moment, accrues the sadness that stars seeping into your life in your mid-20s, death and reckoning and the futile efforts to deny - or at least forestall - both. I walked out stunned.

  6. Amidst by Pavel Zustiak, adapted from Jerzy Kozinski (Palissimo presented by Wexner Center for the Arts) - Three dancers milling through the crowd, no seats, no clear separation, and one of the most striking dance performances I've seen in recent memory. There's a special electricity with the crowd moving as one to give the dancers space, to keep sightlines open, and no matter how well you think you can intimate where they'll be next, once in a while, you'll find yourself getting shoved from behind or a body right there, as if by magic. Breathtaking.

  7. Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom by Matt Slaybaugh, adapted from Cory Doctorow (Available Light) - Slaybaugh followed up last year's (earlier in the same season) How to Live Safely in a Science Fiction Universe with this take on Cory Doctorow's satire. It was a little uneven and a little distant but the good parts were astonishing. Ian Short was a marvel as the flotsam washing up on the shore of the new feel-good reputational economy, and the other two-thirds of the love triangle - Drew Eberly as his baffled friend and Acacia Duncan as his much younger lover suddenly saddled to a sad, old man - were very, very good. Brant Jones' video work was better than I'd ever seen it, Dave Wallingford and Jordan Fehr's sound work was exactly what it needed to be. The kind of production that keeps everyone talking about Available Light.

  8. 33 Variations by Moises Kaufman (Available Light) - Kaufman's interlocking tale of losing what makes you - Beethoven's composing the Diabelli Variations and a musicologist writing what's sure to be her final book on same, told in parallel - is a damn fine play executed perfectly. Eleni Papaleonardos's direction is assured, loose enough to let the light and air in but always keeping the forward motion required for something with this many characters, settings and times. Josie Merkle's Katherine is the standout, with special attention to be paid to Matt Hermes (also on this list directing Good People)'s Beehoven, Dave McMahon's pianist, and extra strong sound and light by Dave Wallingford and Carrie Cox, respectively, were even better than the high expectations for this company.

  9. Good People by David Lindsey-Abaire (New Players Theater) - One of the things I was happiest to see this year was the emergence of New Players Theater. Everything I saw them do was a home run - their sharp, sexy God of Carnagewas damn near as good - and they're nailing the niche of interesting, very traditionally narrative plays that have been on Broadway or Off-Broadway in the last couple of years but doing them like a professional company. David Lindsey-Abaire's play never really tries to rise above its slice of life but there's so much life in the lines and such a real, lived-in charm and so much love for the characters that I was thoroughly charmed and rooting for them all at every step. Matt Hermes' direction was just tight enough and the acting was terrific, particularly Danielle Mann as Margie, hilarious and deeply sad.

  10. Canyon by John Jasperse (Thin Man Dance Inc. presented by Wexner Center for the Arts) - Lines of orange and yellow tape covered the Wexner Center performance space and the dancers went from prone to solo to interaction and prone again around, over and through it. This was the most visceral, even sexy, thing I saw on stage all year. Amidst the grief and the overall theme of stunted, frustrated connection, there were times when it just vibratedwith erotic energy in this hopeless, barren setting. I don't know much about dance but this was a perfect example of why it takes my breath away.


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