Sunday, December 15, 2013

Best of 2013: Theatre/Opera/Dance

Didn’t see quite as much theater as I would’ve liked this year but on balance I think I did okay.  35 shows, here and New York and Chicago.  There were more shows than ever that narrowly missed making this list, foremost among them Amy Herzog’s Great God Pan that continued cementing her as one of the great playwrights of today and Shots in the Dark’s stunning version of Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey’s Next to Normal with every performance knocking it out of the park, led by an amazing Tahrea Maynard who you can be damn sure is a name I’m checking for going forward.  And other moments that I was so glad to have even if the rest of the show didn’t hold up as much in my memory:  Rachel Calloway in Mohamed Fairouz’s Sumedia’s Song; Jordan Fehr in Glue; Kaitlin Descutner in Evolution’s tick…tick...boom; Rebecca Henderson and Phyillis Somerville in Too Much, Too Much, Too Many.  But at the end of the day, these were the ten shows I couldn't not put on this list.

  1. Ganesh Versus the Third Reich by Mark Deans, Marcia Ferguson, Bruce Gladwin, Nicki Holland, Simon Laherty, Sarah Mainwaring, Scott Price, Kate Sulan, Brian Tilley & David Woods (Back to Back Theatre presented by Public Theatre, NYC) –This show wrung me out and left me staggering down Lafayette Street unable to look anyone in the eye.   A play about the place of myth in our lives and the way every symbol gets perverted and maybe every symbol gets reclaimed.  As gripping a work about social structures as Lord of the Flies but more subtle and more aware of the actors within as people.  And the last five minutes left me sobbing openly, literally sobbing.
  2. Life and Times Vol. 1 by Pavol Liska and Kelly Copper from a conversation with Kristin Worrall (Nature Theater of Oklahoma, presented by Wexner Center) - Six people and a four piece “orchestra” transmuting childhood memories into almost an operetta that’s a tribute to memory, a tribute to growing, and even maybe a tribute to speech.  Every “um” and every stutter is scored in song and the choreography gives the impression of someone just learning to dance and finding the most interesting way from each move to the next.  But it never feels showy and it never feels forced.  As joyous an evening as I spent at the theater all year and the three hours went by in the blink of an eye.  The people who walked out midway through, fuck ‘em.  Their loss.
  3. Minsk 2011:  A Reply to Kathy Acker by Belarus Free Theatre (Belarus Free Theatre presented by Public Theatre, NYC) –The most harrowing thing I saw all year, a collage of stories and impressions of the first-hand crushing implications of capitalism.  Who gets ground up and when and particularly the horrible sexual abuse and exploitation of women.  As heavy as the material is here, the work is far from monochromatic, there’s deep humor and even deeper joy and seeing Belarus Free Theatre talk about making art and keep making art even as it costs them jobs,homes, in some cases they can’t even go back to the Minsk for fear of beatings or arrest, and still believe in the power of art and even - most improbably - still speak with a love for their home is astonishing and uplifting.
  4. Bobrauschenbergamerica by Charles L. Mee (Available Light Theater) – My favorite theater company in town doing what they do better than anybody else I’ve run across, digging into the vitality and joy of making art and the pleasures of life and friends and real connection.  I gushed at some length about this show already, but this was a pure dose of the pleasure I only get out of live theater, exquisitely directed by ringleader Eleni Papleonardos, and studded with some of my favorite performances by some of my favorite actors including Elena Perantoni and Ian Short.
  5. Passing Strange by Stew and Heidi Rodewald (Short North Stage) - There’s a great joy in seeing local companies flourish even if what they do is orthogonal to my particular preferences, the wider net that gets cast is better for everybody.  And Short North Stage’s interest in mostly very mainstream musicals using an amazing, renovated old theater, doesn’t always connect (their Sunday in the Park With George was more sizzle than steak) but their Passing Strange was a revelation I couldn’t picture any other company doing.  Ronald Jenkins’ phenomenal take on the Narrator was probably the best single performance I saw all year, Zoe Lathan, Rico Parker, Michelle Golden and Taylor Moss were all fantastic, and the band (while sometimes mixed too low) was spot-on.  And with the direction of Mark Clayton Southers this was a brilliant argument for the good in bringing in selected artists from out of town to augment the great wellspring of local talent. I loved this take top to bottom and it held its own with the unbelievable version I saw in Chicago at Balliwick Theater which is high praise indeed.
  6. Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare (Royal Shakespeare Company) – This all-black take on one of my favorite Shakespeare tragedies, transplanting it to an African nation, burned the layers of understanding off so I could see it with new eyes.  Kissoon’s Caesar oozes charisma and the kind of power you don’t fully trust, and Patterson Joseph and Cyril Nri as Brutus and Cassius are the perfect two sides of the coin.  The “Brutus is an honorable man” speech, maybe my favorite monologue in all of theater, was better than I’ve ever heard it.  Breathtaking.
  7. Assassins by Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman (Red Herring Productions) – In the “kill Caesar” portion of the list and closing out the takes on favorite works of mine done as well as I can picture them being done, maybe my personal favorite Sondheim musical got a pitch perfect read from the resurrected Red Herring.  John Dranshack’s direction and Pam Welsh-Huggins’ musical direction (with a massive assist from Dave Wallingford’s sound design) got amazing mileage and emotional density out of a sparse set and a small band. And the acting - orbiting around Ian Short’s towering, intense, charming John Wilkes Booth - was top notch all around, from Nick Lingofski’s Balladeer and Lee Harvey Oswald to Scott WIson’s Guiteau to Drew Eberly’s Zangara to Jay Rittberger’s Czolgosz.   
  8. We’re Gonna Die by Young Jean Lee (Wexner Center) –Every time I see a new work by Young Jean Lee I’m stunned and inspired, mostly that I and 90% of the artists I know aren’t working nearly hard or deep enough.  Her ever-present willingness to find the subject she feels least equipped to write about (in whatever sense) and heat it in the crucible of her intelligence and aesthetic sensibility until it comes out a fully formed work of her art always leads to something I’m glad to have seen.  And this, a performance with her band,Future Wife, structured like a cabaret show (story-song-story-song) was the most unexpected and delightful so far.  A joyous romp about living through the horrible things life throws at you and getting the most out of it because death is the constant shadow and companion always at your back. With some terrific choreography from Faye Driscoll (also at the Wexner Center this year, last season, with her great new show You’re Me) and songs good enough the record of the show came within a hair of making my favorite records of the year.
  9. Two Boys by Nico Muhly and Craig Lucas (Metropolitan Opera, NYC) –The Met is one of my favorite things to do in NYC, even if the opera is something a little bit hoary, but this stunning new work is neck and neck with Glass’ Satyagraha for my favorite production I’ve ever seen anywhere around Lincoln Center.  A gorgeous, dark work, part police procedural and part cubist evocation of the way perceptions changed in the early days of the internet’s ubiquity and part very traditional masked ball tragedy, this hit every button I have.The astonishing adaptation of stylized by real-feeling chat room talk to Glass-style harmonies was just one of the musical delights and memory triggers this show held for me. Bartlett Sher’s direction was tight and engaging and the singing and acting was top notch, the moment at the end where the mother of the victim moans, “My boy is gone / Gone / Gone for now” echoing the earlier chat room talk might have been the single most chilling moment I had in a theater all year. Sure, there were a few earmarks it was a first opera for Muhly but it swings for the fences and it’s a deep important work with hot blood in its veins.  
  10. Head of Passes by Tarell Alvin McCraney (Steppenwolf, Chicago) –McCraney is one of only a handful of playwrights (with Annie Baker, Amy Herzog, Cynthia Hopkins) I’ll bend over backwards to make a trip line up with new work by. One of the most assured and fascinating voices writing right now and writing about right now.  Head of Passes wasn’t as knocked out terrific as In the Red and Brown Water but this riff on the story of Job set in the titular chunk of the Mississippi Delta was the most profound take on the way we all let evil into our lives and the most powerful cry of faith I heard in any media all year.  Tina Landau’s direction kept the focus where it needed to be and the acting was as good as it always is at Steppenwolf, especially Cheryl Lynn Bruce’s heartbreaking turn as Shelah, Glenn Davis’s bravura turn as double-edged charmer Aubrey. There are some story problems with this, especially in the second act, but 7 months later I’m still thinking about exchanges and still have dialogue from this in my head. What else can you ask of a piece of theater?


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