Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Best of 2014: Theatre

"Live, you crazy mother


& organize
yr shit
as rightly
-Amiri Baraka, "AM/TRAK"

  1. How We Got On by Idris Goodwin (Available Light Theatre) – I wrote about Goodwin’s phenomenal play at some length already. This knocked me around in the best way; the only other thing this year I can compare it to for sheer feel-good (but not dumb or uncomplicated) joy is She Kills Monsters a couple slots below. This story about taking your first steps into creative work and self-actualization against the backdrop of the early tendrils of hip-hop’s ascendance to primary art form DNA of the last quarter of the 20th century was magic from beginning to end. The characters worked as poetic archetype, but they were so beautifully played they still felt like unpredictable, screwed-up (in a good way) kids - from David Glover’s trying to find his own way to Kayla Jackmon’s diamond-hard intensity leavened by a beautiful playfulness to Rudy Frias’s intense boasting and charisma belying a burning insecurity. And Wilma Hatton as The Selector, combination narrator, DJ, and every adult authority figure who wanders into frame, nearly steals the show. Drew Eberly’s direction is spot-on, keeping this moving like a close game or a raging party.
  2. Father Comes Home From the Wars Part 1, 2, and 3 by Suzan Lori-Parks (Public Theatre, NYC) – This was everything Lori-Parks does, amplified and in glorious over-saturated color. The beginning of a cycle inspired by The Odyssey and built around the civil war, this tells a moving, mythopoetic story about a slave named Hero (played magnificently by Sterling K. Brown) and his circle including Homer (Jeremie Harris) and Penny (Jenny Jules), the Rebel army represented by a drunk, insecure colonel (a brilliant Ken Marks), and a prisoner (a heartbreaking Louis Cancelmi), as Hero goes to war, comes back, and tries to find some peace. All of the acting, with special attention to Jenny Jules and Peter Jay Fernandez, is perfect, and the direction by Jo Bonney couldn’t be bettered. It’s about America, how we got here, and how screwed up we all are. It’s about unwinnable battles and untenable situations and how much you compromise until you break – how you do damage to people you should love and care for and how you struggle to do right. It’s about the way the tale and the teller argue for primacy and truth but also refresh each other’s blood. It’s about the terror of the future but the greater terror of old patterns repeating ad nauseam.
  3. Vidas Perfectas by Robert Ashley, translated by Javier Sainz de Robles (Whitney Museum, NYC) – I still remember the first time I heard Robert Ashley’s television opera, and it made the same impression on me as the first time I saw a Rauschenberg or the first time I heard Monk. Another peak in that kind of modernism I loved so much, ironic-hip slang and double talk spun around a deep empathy and a sense of magic that’s hard to sum up in words. I saw one of my favorite sections, The Bar (El Bar here), and one of my all-time heroes, Ned Sublette, appeared as the lounge singer R with the riveting pianist Elio Villafranca along with Raul de Nieves and Elisa Santiago, all brilliant. The Spanish translation spoke to America as it is now and also a mythic west, and the set/taping for television had a plastic feeling both comforting and very unsettling. This was amplified by Alex Waterman’s direction, which managed to be both tense and loose at the same time. “We don’t serve fine wine in half pints, buddy.”
  4. Straight White Men by Young Jean Lee (Young Jean Lee Theater Group presented by the Wexner Center) – I think I said last year, when writing about We’re Gonna Die, that Young Jean Lee is one of those people who inevitably reminds me to work much, much harder. Possibly her most straightforward play finds her drifting toward Annie Baker territory, a deceptive naturalism that hides and shades a brilliantly weird depth. It delves into what privilege means and the additional complications that come from trying to acknowledge it and slip out of its grip, the soft, purring cat that will eat you that we call comfort (apologies to Jim Sallis). It performs a hard task, understanding and having compassion while not letting you off the hook. Sometimes it’s hard to look away from and sometimes the laughs rain down so easily that you don’t see the uppercut coming. Thank you to the Wexner Center for helping commission this and presenting its premiere.
  5. We Are Proud to Present A Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as Southwest Africa, From the German Sudwestafrika, Between the Years 1884-1915 by Jackie Sibblies Drury (Available Light Theatre) – I wrote about this at some length here [LINK], comparing and contrasting it to How We Got On, and itmay have been the most difficult piece any local company put on this year. An unflinching look at race, at how we shape and process history, at how there’s always someone on the bottom of every joke, at how so very much art is built on the backs of people who didn’t get a say, that’s at turns jaw-droppingly funny and jaw-droppingly depressing, sometimes turning at a whiplash pace. Perfectly directed by Matt Slaybaugh and with a cast it would be impossible to better, including Ben Jones who was a revelation, Shanelle Marie whose work was new to me but blew me away, and actors whose work I already loved clearing the already high bar set for them: David Glover, Acacia Duncan, Jordan Fehr, and Matt Hermes. On a minimal set with characters not drawn very specifically and language that worked on so many (sometimes contrasting) levels at the same time it would make Harold Pinter blush, they made the kind of magic you only get in a room sharing each other’s breath, and made at least a few people sleep a little less easy that night.
  6. She Kills Monsters by Qui Nguyen (Available Light Theatre) – just wrote about this and it’s the only thing on my list still playing as I post this, so of course I encourage you to see it. A different facet of the light aspects of How We Got On, with less thematic rigor but a very similar sense of the childlike first steps to the joy of creation, and another exquisite cast, held down by Krista Lively Stauffer as Agnes Evans and Kimberly Martin as her sister Tilly, with a pitch-perfect rotating constellation of supporting characters around them including Whitney Thomas Eads, Mark Hale, Laura Crone, Jordan Fehr, Emma Lou Harris, Allison Brogan, and Adam Humphrey. Ian Short’s direction is the perfect blend of lighthearted and deeply sad, exciting but with a real gravity.
  7. Operetta Burlesque by Emma Dante (Sud Costa Occidentale presented with the OSU Theatre Department) - Maybe the sexiest evening I spent at the theater and one of the funniest. One of Emma Dante's troupes earliest tours of the US brought us a frenetic, wild look at a 40 year old man, Pietro, still stuck living with his parents and spending what money he makes on weekend trips to the nearest big city for glittering women's clothing and love that's clearly going to end badly, with the flashpoint being the man he's finally found "true love" with telling him he's going to stay with his wife and threatening to kill him. But the meat of the piece is Pietro's self-image, a very beautiful woman, in righteous, electrifying dance sequences. As much as I loved this, I'd also like to admonish the OSU group that brought them to town for not listing the cast on the webpage. Make it easy for those of us who want to tell people but didn't save the program.
  8. Brownsville Song (B-Side for Tray) by Kimber Lee (LCT3 at Lincoln Center Theatre, NYC) – This was a heartbreaking study in empathy telling an all-too-familiar story of a promising young man cut down in random violence. Sheldon Best as Tray is a star, giving a perfectly calibrated performance that hits every beat it needs to, and Lizan Mitchell as his grandmother Lena is a supernova, taking the “wise grandmother holding her family together” archetype into a three-dimensional relief that reminds you of every person who ever had an influence on you (and made me miss my grandmother a great deal). Sun Mee Chomet, Taliyah Whitaker, and especially Chris Myers all also made deep impressions without a lot of stage time. Patricia McGregor’s direction kept this taut play moving and tightly wound; the sequences where everything stopped for Tray and his sister to dance were some of the most beautiful things I saw in a theater all year. What this lacked in originality it made up for with a knowing eye and a throbbing heart.
  9. Act One by James Lapine, adapted from the memoir by Moss Hart (Lincoln Center Theatre, NYC) –There were some issues with this – it really could have used an editor – but it scratched my itch for a traditional three-act structure and classic Broadway razzle-dazzle (its spell-binding turntable set turned me into a 9-year-old boy seeing Phantom of the Opera again) like nothing else I saw this year. A giant cast, all perfectly fine, especially Santino Fontana as young Moss Hart, was held together and made sing by Tony Shaloub as George Kaufman/older Moss Hart/Moss Hart’s father. Shaloub's might be the finest performance I’ve ever seen on a stage. It’s no exaggeration to say it’s in the top five; a case study in the way you can turn caricature into complexity with just a couple twists of the screws. This is the kind of big-canvas play almost no one does anymore but Lincoln Center keeps commissioning and pushing, and we’re all better for it.
  10. The Room Nobody Knows by Kuro Tanino (Niwa Gekidan Penino presented by Wexner Center for the Arts) - I wrote about this at some length already and the images have stuck with me since. Tanino's heavily Freudian psychodrama used surreal elements and twisted figments of fantasy to pack a disturbing, hilarious punch.

As this is the first of the wrap-up posts, I’m going to get a little vague and rambly. Try to suppress your shock.

In a year so fraught with pain around me and some echoing pain of my own, I found great solace looking back at a year that was full to the bursting with art. Art that put me in touch with things it’s easier to shut away and art that made me desperately want to articulate something. That made me bemoan crowds that weren’t there and fall in love a little bit with the few of us who were. That made me overjoyed to have to elbow through a packed house. That left me speechless, that left me slackjawed, that made me feel like a fraud, that made me believe in being human again. And when I revisited it, it still helped me find my way back from whatever nonsense I was preoccupied with. Art that cut through the noise, the omnipresent static and empty chatter of teeth, the whine of invisible wires, and I felt that shiver up my back or that knife at my throat. I felt it and I was glad to be there, to be here, to be alive in this moment and to have made the choice to keep going out in the world and glad to have made the choice to be sitting or standing there, soaking this in.

That’s what I’m here to proselytize for. I don’t expect people reading this to share most of my tastes (though if you didn’t share some of them, why would you bother?), but if we have points of intersection, talk about what you like and what you don’t, argue with your friends. Please go deeper into what you love, what makes you feel alive, what keeps your brain firing even as the minutiae grinds it into oatmeal every day. Some of your friends already don’t have this choice. Some of your friends are already gone. Use the time and energy you have as wisely as you can and don’t beat yourself up for what you’ve wasted. I want this blog to be better about that, in addition to the previews, in the next year. That’s my challenge to myself. To talk more about what’s going on as it happens.

In theater there was a long line of honorable mentions – starting with things that *just* missed the top ten: the taut direction of Ian Short and brilliant acting of Elena Perantoni, David Glover, and Drew Eberly in Cock; Matt Slaybaugh’s tricky adaptation of Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station and the mesmerizing performances of Ian Short, David Tull, Rudy Frias, and especially the volcanic Eleni Papaleonardos; the incredibly moving collaboration Thicker than Water, co-written by its actors, Nick Lingnofski and Michael Garrett Herring, and its director, John Dranschak; the symbiosis of Adrian Lester’s performance and Lolita Chakhrabati's writing in Red Velvet at St Ann’s in Brooklyn.

And other things that had one or more parts I thought worked beautifully but the whole didn’t cohere for me: the acting, especially Rudy Frias and Whitney Thomas Eads, in Dirty Math 2016: Days of Future Math; the anarchic energy and Kaitlin Descutner’s performance in the reading of The Performers; Acacia Duncan’s luminous performance in Cymbeline; Reed Birney and Brooke Bloom in Claire Barron’s You Got Older, even as the play tripped over itself and choked on what felt like undigested chunks of other playwrights, I didn’t doubt either of them in their roles for even a second, and Barron’s is a voice I very much want to hear again; Anthony Braxton’s score for Trillium J and the masterful singing, though I stumbled over the libretto; the chances taken in the workshop I saw of Camille Bullock’s Southern Cross the Dog, I promise you that’s a voice to watch out for in coming months and years, and the performance therein by Cameron Williamson.

There’s a bounty of pleasures if you’re willing to put in a little time.


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