Monday, December 21, 2015

15 for '15 - My Top Theatrical Experiences This Year

Daniel N. Durant as Moritz in Deaf West's Spring Awakening.
Photo by Kevin Parry.
We don't need no stinkin' rules! Especially not rules that limit me to choosing only 10 shows for 2015. That's just cruel and unusual punishment. And, as I'm not an accredited journalist, and this is my house, we're doing 15 for 15 this year.

I'm quite proud to report that my attendance bumped up from last year - I saw 130 shows in 2015, and when we remove the repeats, it comes out to 121 unique shows - only one fewer than I saw in 2013, and 24 up from last year. It's been an odd mix this year - some truly extraordinary theater, including the groundbreaking work by Broadway's biggest nerd, Lin-Manuel Miranda - but the Fall season on Broadway, at least in terms of straight plays, was oddly disappointing. However, Off-Broadway picked up the slack, there's still plenty of good work to remember from this past Spring, and loads to anticipate for 2016.

So let's get started. (and before anyone calls the dogs out on any shows I omitted, the list started at 32 for the year, which I then had to painstakingly cull down to its present length)

Honorable Mention: I can't officially include Hedwig and the Angry Inch on this list, since the production made my '14 list last year, but if I didn't include John Cameron Mitchell's incredible performance in the role he created, I'd be doing a disservice to all of us. I saw him only after his injury early in his run, but even hobbled as he was by multiple knee braces, his Hedwig was a terrifying and heartbreaking force of nature. The role (and the show) transformed under his care, running a good twenty minutes longer from all the riffing and adlibbing. This was Hedwig as I knew her from before - bitingly cruel one moment, sweet and loving the next. A deeply-bedded river of bitterness ran through her, even as she valiantly soldiered on, crutch tucked under her arm. And oh god, the moment JCM opened his mouth in the first song, sounding just like he did twenty years earlier, I started to cry. (I feel it would be remiss if I did not also mention the fact that my friend Marissa received the infamous car wash treatment when we attended together - without a doubt, an unforgettable evening).

15. School of Rock.(Winter Garden). Listen, I'm as surprised as you are to see an Andrew Lloyd Webber show on my list. But this show, based on the 2003 Jack Black film, was a hell of a lot of fun. Led by the highly charismatic Alex Brightman, it's a rather joyful if irresponsible romp - and hot damn are those children talented. The show starts with a recorded voiceover by Lord Andrew himself, assuring us that these children really are playing their instruments live. They're shockingly good - not just at the instruments, but at singing and the rest of it as well. I came expecting a troupe of annoying child actors with unintelligible diction; I left completely blown away. I can't speak for the long life of this show, but I had a great time, and it's definitely a feel-good family-friendly evening.

14. Sequence 8 (Les 7 doigts de la main/City Center). 7 Fingers is a thrilling troupe of acrobats and their latest New York offering did not disappoint. Though they could probably have used a smaller venue - City Center is rather a cavernous space to fill, especially after the intimacy they had at the Union Square Theatre - the show was consistently delightful and astonishing in both its physical feats and its whimsically sweet sense of humor. Full review here.

Tim Pigott-Smith, Adam James, Oliver Chris, and Richard Goulding as King
Charles III, Mr. Evans, Prince William, and Prince Harry in King Charles III.
Photo by Johan Persson.

13. King Charles III (Music Box). Truly an extraordinary feat. Going in, I knew only that it theorized the hypothetical reign of Prince Charles, should England's current monarch pass. I had no idea I was in for a night of Shakespearean proportions - down to the blank verse and structure, it genuinely felt like I was watching Shakespeare's chronicle of a potential future. Consummately well-staged and acted, the show tackled not only the very public personae of the royal family, but the current climate regarding the people's right to a public figure's private life. An interesting and challenging play.

12. Airline Highway (MTC/Samuel J. Friedman). In my review, I only gave this show a B+, but it's one that has aged very well in my memory (unlike, unfortunately, the Gigi revival). The powerful ensemble, the musicality of the chaos, the heartbreaking despair coupled hand in hand with a grim sort of hope - it's stuck with me, along with Miss Ruby's insistence that these, the forgotten castaways of humanity, "are not disposable." Full review here.

11. The Legend of Georgia McBride (MCC/Lucille Lortel). This play was a pure delight, start to finish. A rather sweet insight into drag shows on the southern fringes, and a young man trying to find his voice as a performer. Its centerpiece - a montage, across months, of the two divas as they grow and expand their repertoire - is basically perfection. Excellent acting all around. I expected it to get some kind of commercial transfer (the audience I saw it with was as enthused as I was), but I haven't heard any buzz, alas.

Matt McGrath, Keith Nobbs, and Dave Thomas Brown as Tracey, Rexy,
and Casey in The Legend of Georgia McBride. Photo by Joan Marcus.

10. Man and Superman (National Theatre Live Broadcast). Okay, I may not have seen it live, but I did sit in a theater to watch the broadcast! This was a sumptuous production with a stellar cast, working deftly with the dense language of Shaw to deliver a true confection of a play (as a side note, I've now seen three separate productions of this play; all three decry how other productions omit the Don Juan in Hell sequence, but 3 for 3, I've seen the sequence in each production. Take a chill pill, guys). Ralph Fiennes and Indira Varma had delicious chemistry, managing to walk the line of vulnerability that saves these characters from being thoroughly unlikable. An absolute treat of an evening, and adding to the list of reasons I'm grateful programs like National Theatre Live exist.

9. Let the Right One In (National Theatre of Scotland/St. Ann's Warehouse). A stunningly beautiful adaptation of the unusual romance between a young boy and an immortal. A stage scattered with naked birch trees, falling snow, and at times a fair amount of blood, populated by a surprisingly small cast playing the inhabitants of a Swedish town. Perfectly designed, and incredibly well-acted, this play has stuck with me since I saw it in January. Full review here.

8. Wolf Hall (RSC/Winter Garden). This is another one that's aged well for me. When I saw it, I was fully engrossed (impressive, considering I was hopped up on cold medicine for both parts) in the complicated machinations of Thomas Cromwell, the swirling, shifting cycle of courtiers and royalty, of people in and out of favor and power. The more I think back on it, the more I am impressed with its construction, and in particular with the subtle but engaging performance of Ben Miles, he with the diplomat's demeanor, he who coldly informs a remaining rival at part two's conclusion, "drink to my health," backed by the ghosts of all the people whose deaths he has effected. A chilling conclusion to a riveting six hours. Full review here.

Griffin Matthews (center) and company in Invisible Thread.
Photo by Sara Krulwich/NYTimes.

7. Invisible Thread (2econd Stage). God, this show was so invigorating. A young man in New York journeys to Uganda to find himself, and ends up finding an adopted family of teenagers desperate to educate themselves into a better life. The set was a rising hill of red sand and dirt, and as the characters danced, that dirt was kicked up - you could smell it as much as you could see it. The score was powerful and vigorous, the choreography dynamic, and the story itself inspiring and based on the author's (and star's) own experiences. I actually saw the matinee Griffin, Jeremy Pope, rather than the author himself, but he was just perfection. If they don't give me a cast album, I might cry.

6. Constellations (MTC/Samuel J. Friedman). Every time I think back on the intricacy of Nick Payne's script, I get chills. Endless permutations of the same conversation, endless multiverse possibilities, but always grounded by the inescapable facts of who they are, and the rules of science. My heart was broken; my heart was warmed. I got the script soon after seeing the play, to check if there was any indication, in the script, of the tone of the repeated sections - there wasn't. Which means that future productions have endless possibilities before them. Full review here.

Georgia Engel and Hong Chau as Mertis Katherine Graven and Jenny Chung
in John. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

5.  John (Signature). The general complaint about Annie Baker plays is that her writing is full of All the Pauses. And I'd agree if those pauses were empty. But each moment in John was so full, even when dialogue-less, that I was thoroughly engrossed for the entire play. (In fact, one of the most delightful sequences consisted of an empty stage, with the distantly-echoing strains of Mertis giving a tour of the upstairs, drifting down). The play was such a delightful mystery to unpack, each character peeling back layers to reveal the kernels of pain or hope within. Georgia Engel, in the role written specifically for her, was endlessly delightful, not just as host of her eccentrically-decorated B&B, but as the host of the space, manually pulling open and closed the show curtain. While I respected The Flick for what it was, it didn't grab me emotionally - John felt intensely emotional, even as the characters skirt around their own issues.

4. Into the Woods Original Cast Reunion (BAM). You wouldn't think (or maybe it's just that I wouldn't think) a mere reunion of actors from a musical in the '80s would engender such an intense emotional response as I had, but we forget how evocative nostalgia - and formative childhood memories - can be. The temptation to call this concert a once in a lifetime experience is perhaps belied by the fact that it's been held a few times now, on both coasts, but that's absolutely the sense that everyone there had. We were all returned to our old friends, still in excellent voice, singing this remarkable score, and - much like the original did with its deconstruction of fairy tales - returning to our childhood for a few hours (well, at least for those of my generation). There was something truly electric and sincerely heartfelt about this concert, and I'm so grateful I was able to attend. Full write up here.

Art by Sean Devare.
3. Henry V (The Shakespeare Forum). This year, The Shakespeare Forum, a wonderful group in New York on whose Advisory Board I sit, changed up their production format. Their last several shows - Hamlet, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Love's Labour's Lost, and The Merchant of Venice - have been fully-designed and -staged productions. As they reevaluated their priorities, they decided their show this time around would help them examine why they produce shows and why they tell stories. So Henry V was dubbed a workshop - not formally blocked, with uniform costumes of white undershirts, black cargo pants, and burgundy hoodies, and the audience instructed to set up a chair anywhere in the naked blackbox space. And I have rarely seen a better celebration of play or players than what I experienced at this show. Though the staging was loose, the language, emotion, and relationships of the performers - all staff members of the Forum - were clear, honest, funny, and incredibly powerful. It felt like a true "Forum" production, and a wonderful return to what's important for this group - the recognition that the most important thing any artist can bring to a work is her unique self.

2. Spring Awakening (Deaf West/Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts & Brooks Atkinson). Deaf West's revival of Spring Awakening, a musical based on Frank Wedekind's 1891 play, transcends its source material in unanticipated ways, making a tolerable musical from ten years ago one of the season's must-see productions. I booked a special trip out to see my California family this past June, not realizing a Broadway transfer was in the works. Eh, no big, I got to see it twice, and note the differences within the transfer. Deaf West's production goes a step further than their last Broadway revival of Big River in 2003 - there, the deaf actors played hearing characters; here, the characters played by deaf actors are contextually deaf as well, making a larger statement about how inhospitable society can be to deaf people, as well as deepening the show's theme: the refusal of adults to communicate clearly with children leads to tragedy (do I write a run-on sentence? very well, then, I write a run-on sentence).  A hugely talented young cast led by Daniel N. Durant, Sandra Mae Frank, and Austin McKenzie makes this story newly vital, with intensely moving staging and a gorgeous melding of choreography and ASL. Full review here.

1. Hamilton (The Public & Richard Rodgers). I mean, duh. Super duh. For those of you who haven't seen this show yet, I promise it actually lives up to the hype. I love this show so much, I keep being surprised it's not just a cult hit, but a bonafide Broadway smash. The first time I saw the show, still in previews at The Public, I had trouble breathing at times. I felt like I was watching theater change. Lin-Manuel Miranda has rightly earned his MacArthur-granted title of genius - the show's narrative is tightly-constructed, the musical and lyrical motifs are evocative, moving, and intelligent. Hamilton is invigorating, on multiple levels - the heroic and tragic narrative, the robust staging and too-talented-for-their-britches cast, and especially as an artist - I left Hamilton wanting to rush home and write something as good, as inspiring, as what I had just seen. The final question Hamilton poses is "Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?" Let's hope this production, with a cast made up nearly entirely of people of color, shows everyone that they, too, are entitled to tell their nation's history. Full review here.

Phillipa Soo, Renee Elise Goldsberry, and Jasmine Cephas Jones as
Eliza, Angelica, and Peggy Schuyler. Photo by Joan Marcus.

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