Tuesday, December 29, 2020

2020 Theater: The Year of Streaming (with a small handful of live theater at the top)

The closest I've come to Times Square since
March 12th. Photo by Zelda Knapp.
I don't need to tell anyone reading this what a terrible year this has been. The devastation has been global, has impacted everyone, and isn't over yet. We're all still hurting. The theater community's wound has been manifold: loss of employment for performers, designers, musicians, stage crew, house staff, box office staff. Loss of an all-too-fragile scaffolding support structure reliant on our ability to gather in large groups for one communal experience, night after night after night. Performance and rehearsal venues, long staples of the Off-Off community, have closed their doors for good. Shows have shuttered permanently while others wait in the wings (so to speak) for their cue to return. And we've lost prematurely far too many artists in the industry, artists whose loss in a vacuum is already devastating, but whose accumulation is too heavy to bear (I know, not all on this list were from COVID, before anyone chimes in with a correction). 

Raise a glass for Terrence McNally, Mark Blum, Adam Schlesinger, William Wolf, Brian Dennehy, Shirley Knight, Peter Hunt, Bernard Gersten, Larry Kramer, Nick Cordero, Brent Carver, Howell Binkley, Herbert Kretzmer, Israel Horowitz, Ann Reinking, Rebecca Luker. For UCB, for Shetler Studios, for the Secret Theatre, for Simple Studios, for the Creek and the Cave. For Frozen and for Then She Fell.

Raise a glass for the fact that we still don't know when theater can safely return in the States, and what will be left of us when it does. (Also randomly, they never got around to having the Tony Awards, even though they released the nominations in October. The Obies, Drama Desks, Lortel, and Antonyo awards were either aired online or released as a list.)

So this is my year-end post, where I list the top shows I saw this year. What do I even write about? I saw 24 shows before the shutdown on March 12th. And then since then I've seen 173 streaming theater pieces (a mixture of archive recordings, formerly recorded broadcasts, quarantine bubble productions with no audience, zoom readings, and hybrid forms of theater and film) (also I have 3-4 items left on my to-watch list for this year). Some of it has been decidedly not good. Some of it has been wonderful, poignant and uplifting. None of it is the real thing, and I still ache at the memory of kinetic energy passing between an enthusiastic audience and a vibrant production. But it's been something. I keep thinking of AJ's speech in The American President:

People want leadership, Mr. President, and in the absence of genuine leadership, they'll listen to anyone who steps up to the microphone. They want leadership. They're so thirsty for it they'll crawl through the desert toward a mirage, and when they discover there's no water, they'll drink the sand.

Replace leadership with live theater and that's where I've landed. I've drunk some sand this year. But. It hasn't all been sand. And too much of my nature is geared toward finding a glimmer of gratitude within my grief. So I've made a list of what was special this year: a smaller one for the live theater, and the rest for what I watched online. You can expect my usual cheats to get in more than just a paltry "Top Ten." It's 2020, the worst year in many of our lives, and I want to remember as much joy as I can.

Godspeed, my loves. We'll be together again.

Best of live theater (in chronologic, not ranking, order):

1. London Assurance (Irish Rep; Off-B). A delightfully polished romp of manners and wooing in the English countryside.

The cast of London Assurance. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

2. Twelfth Night (Hamlet Isn't Dead, Off-Off-B). Tuneful and fast-paced, another delight from this lovely Off-Off New York theater company.

The cast of Twelfth Night. Photo by Valerie Terranova.

3. Six (Brooks Atkinson, B), which didn't quite make it to its opening night due to the shutdown. Exuberant, engaging, and affirming, with a catchy-as-hell score.

Abby Mueller, Samantha Pauly, Adrianna Hicks, Andrea Macasaet,
Brittney Mack, and Anna Uzele. Photo by Liz Lauren.

Honorable Mention: the McKittrick's hosting of London's The Woman in Black (Off-B). 100% the scary chamber ghost story I've loved since I first saw it in 2000 (which is why it's not eligible for 2020; it's inherently the same production, with some staging adjustments made for a different venue). But truly wonderful.

Best of streaming theater (in chronologic, not ranking, order):

1. Theater in Quarantine. Joshua William Gelb (fellow PHTS alum!) emptied out his closet, painted it white, set up a camera, and started his Theater in Quarantine lab series, which has now bloomed into a series of live performances. Extraordinary, literally off-the-wall, and an inspiring reminder of what you can do with ingenuity and hard work.

Joshua William Gelb. Screenshot from Theater In Quarantine Facebook page.

2. Take Me to the World. A transcendent evening belatedly honoring Stephen Sondheim's 90th birthday, a concert that could never have happened in pre-pandemic circumstances (that roster!), beginning with a tech catastrophe that somehow rallied the audience round it more enthusiastically when it triumphantly began an hour late (reminding me of how an audience celebrates an actor's recovery onstage from a broken prop, set, or costume). Ecstasy after ecstasy, joyful and mournful both. I even wrote a whole blog post about it, including a semicoherent montage poem based on the song choices.

Illustration by Tug Rice.

3. The Apple Family Plays. Richard Nelson continued the saga of the Apple family, chronicled previously in four plays produced at The Public. Here, seven years later, the siblings connect midpandemic over Zoom, in What Do We Need to Talk About? and And So We Come Forth. These, along with the Sondheim concert, were incredibly healing moments for me.

(clockwise) Jay O. Saunders, Maryann Plunkett, Sally Murphy, Laila Roberts, and
Stephen Kunken in What Do We Need to Talk About? Screenshot from LA Times.

4. The Diary of Anne Frank. Park Square Theatre in Saint Paul, Minnesota was set to produce this just as everything shut down. But with a cast rehearsed and prepared, they decided to go ahead and present it on Zoom, finding a new poignancy in the story of people locked away in a claustrophobic attic for years, waiting for the danger to pass.

Sulia Rose Altenberg as Anne Frank. Photo from Park Square Theatre website.

5. American Players Theatre. This theater company located in Spring Green, Wisconsin, is one of my favorite finds of streaming theater. This summer, in lieu of their usual summer repertory, they aired six Zoom readings of plays read by members of their company. This was later followed by three Zoom productions in the fall, a special Halloween reading of The Turn of the Screw, and two holiday specials in December. They somehow managed to achieve what most Zoom readings I've seen this year have lacked: a sense of palpable connection and energy among their performers. Particular highlights for me were Arms and the Man, The Turn of the Screw, and This Wonderful Life.

6. The Weir. Irish Rep has really adapted quite well to presenting work online in more than just the usual talking heads on Zoom. Their revival of The Weir, staged against greenscreen backdrop images of the set from their stage production, with the same cast trading drinks and ghost stories, was a perfect hybrid use of the medium.

7. Songs For a New World (produced by the UK's The Other Palace). Four extraordinary performers, filmed in their own homes, blessing this beloved chamber song cycle with their gifts. Oh god, so many tears, y'all.

8. Emma Rice/Kneehigh/Bristol Old Vic broadcasts. Another gift of streaming theater this year: access to Emma Rice and Kneehigh's delightfully inventive and heartfelt theatrics. I love their work so much, and I'm grateful especially to have been able to see Romantics Anonymous and The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk, both filmed and broadcast live, sans audience.

Marc Antonlin and Audrey Brisson in The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk.
Photo by Steve Tanner.

9. A Gatherin' Place. A beautiful exploration of how a community can be a space to lift each other up, and to give empathy and space to grief.

The cast of A Gatherin' Place. Photo source.

10. I Have a Song to Sing, O! A joyous remote concert by members of the NYGASP company, singing Gilbert and Sullivan favorites in glorious voice.

Members of NYGASP. Screenshot source.

11. Talley's Folly. Syracuse Stage presented this two hander by Lanford Wilson starring real-life couple Kate Hamill and Jason O'Connell. This was already a play I loved, and these two were absolute perfection, gift-wrapped. I had a 24-hour window to watch the stream, and I watched it three times.

Kate Hamill and Jason O'Connell. Photo by Mike Davis.

12. The Steadfast Tin Soldier. Lookingglass Theater Company's presentation of a ballet adaption of Hans Christian Andersen's story by Mary Zimmerman. Beautiful, imaginative, and completely heartbreaking.

Alex Stein, Kasey Foster, and John Gregorio. Photo source.

13. Heroes of the Fourth Turning. Wilma Theater, another valuable find this year, presented this site-specific production of Will Arbery's play about intellectual conservatives navigating the battleground of their Catholic values against the political compromises they've felt obligated to make, to keep their party in power. Disturbing and compelling, asking the audience neither to condemn nor condone the characters.

Sarah Gliko, Jered McLenigan, and Campbell O'Hare. Photo source.

14. A Christmas Carol (x2). In December I watched six adaptations of Dickens's A Christmas Carol. Two of them were dreadful, two of them were fine, and two of them were extraordinary. The latter two were both one-actor productions: Summoners Ensemble's reading by John Kevin Jones and George Street Playhouse's production starring Jefferson Mays. The production styles were very different: Jones performed at the Merchant's House in a room bedecked for Christmas, sipping from a teacup and narrating and playing every role; while Jefferson Mays performed onstage in fully realized spectacle devised by Michael Arden and Dane Laffrey, also narrating and playing every role. One performance had all the trappings of a truly theatrical spectacle, and the other none but the cozy comfort of a familiar story--and yet both featured virtuosic performances by masters of their craft. Both productions thrilled and moved me, and made me yearn to watch them live and in person. Perhaps someday.

Image sources.

Honorable Mentions: the National Theatre at Home broadcasts and Emilia.

And one final note as we prepare to bid this terrible year goodbye: Noel Coward's love letter to theater, as performed by Derek Jacobi in A Marvellous Party:

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