Tuesday, December 14, 2021

Onstage and Streaming: My Top Theater for 2021

The first three quarters of 2021 was still the era of Streaming Theater Only, but as Autumn loomed, as more people got vaccinated, theaters began to reopen and we were finally able to return. Now, at the end of 2021, most of the theater I'm seeing is in person, though I'm grateful for the companies who continue to make their work accessible online (particularly the companies not local to me, like APT, Wilma Theater, Original Theatre, Wise Children, and East West Players). I'm hopeful that the future will continue to bring accessible theater to the world, not limiting the audience to only those immediately there or those who can afford the steep ticket prices asked by Broadway, West End, and the major touring houses.
Stephen Sondheim. Photo by Fred R. Conrad.

This year, like last, was hard. It was exhausting. It was, as of November 26th, once more devastatingly heartbreaking, when the giant Stephen Sondheim passed away. As more variants appear and we still haven't reached majority vaccination in our population, we still don't know what the future will hold for in-person gatherings. But y'all know by now I'm a silver lining person, so I can but hope. Amidst our grief and fear, we can hope, we can love, and we can appreciate the good, good art we were lucky enough to experience. This year I am pleased to have two Best Of lists--one for the streaming works that remain vivid for me now, and for the live theater I got attend this last quarter.

Oh and because I know I'm supposed to provide my annual tally, here you go: 103 streaming productions, 25 live plays (+2 repeat), 13 live musicals (+1 repeat), totaling 141 distinct productions (3 repeats).

Love, peace, and health to you all.

Honorable Mentions: A number of remarkable streaming experiences this year, though created by theater groups, I would not technically categorize as theater, but as film or audio experiences. Of particular note for me were Wilma Theater's audio play Clay, Associated Theatres Limited's film The Picture of Dorian Gray, and Original Theatre's short film Viral. I would also like to mention Irish Rep's wonderful Molly Sweeney, which was technically made in 2020 but I did not view it til its encore screening in early 2021. 

Photo source.

Top Streaming

1. An Iliad (American Players Theatre; watched July): Gutting. Inspiring. A tour de force performance from Jim DeVita, and another in a line of wonderful experiences provided by APT's At Home screenings.

2. The Last Five Years (Out of the Box Theatrics; watched April): Gorgeous, heartbreaking, wonderful, and all shot continuously (with some tactical breaks) inside an apartment, including live musicians playing under these two wonderful performers. Not soon to be forgotten, this one.

3. A Cold Supper Behind Harrods (Original Theatre; watched July): Such a seemingly simple play with a simple premise, but so much more. This play demands close attention, a blend of skepticism and empathy, as old skeletons are dug up decades later.

4. All the Devils are Here (Shakespeare Theatre Company; watched February): Patrick Page's riveting one-person piece about his relationship with Shakespeare's villains. Intricately built, brilliantly executed.

5. The System (Original Theatre; watched December): An extraordinary one-person show written and performed by Emily Head, covering a series of interrogations after the death of a man named Paul. This production also featured possibly the longest live single steadicam shot.

6. Minor Character (Wilma Theater; watched October): Never thought I'd enjoy a Chekhov this much, but Wilma Theater's deconstruction of Uncle Vanya manages to access both the humor and heartbreak that are the foundation of his plays.

7. The Last Match (Writers Theatre; watched May): This production taught me that my disappointment in the Roundabout run I saw of this play was that director's fault and no reflection of the play itself. This was excellent storytelling and staging, tense and exhilarating.

8. Simply Sondheim (Virginia's Signature Theatre; watched February): This concert honoring Stephen Sondheim back in February, featuring a mix of regular Signature performers and star turns from Broadway luminaries like Norm Lewis and Solea Pfeiffer, this was moving, funny, and thrilling (if sometimes a little oddly filmed).

9. Mary Stuart (Bedlam; watched May): Bedlam's refreshing return to good form with their apartment-bound adaptation of Schiller's play, both intimate and expansive.

10. Fat Ham (Wilma Theater; watched May): A rather amazing backyard barbeque adaptation of Hamlet.

Top Live

1. Cullud Wattah (The Public Theater, Off-B): Poetic and human, full of love and full of righteous fury. I feel so lucky to have seen this before it closed.

Andrea Patterson, Lizan Mitchell, Alicia Pilgrim, Lauren F. Walker, and
Crystal Dickinson as Ainee, Big Ma, Plum, Reesee, and Marion.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

2. What Happened?: The Michaels Abroad (Hunter Theater Project/Frederick Loewe, Off-B): As this play concluded I stayed in my seat, weeping gratefully to finally be home again. Richard Nelson's plays are definitely a particular brew, but if they're your flavor, there's nothing quite so special.

Jay O. Sanders, Havilland Morris, Yvonne Woods, Rita Wolf, Maryann
Plunkett, and Charlotte Blydwell as David, Irenie, Suzanne, Sally, Kate,
and Lucy. Photo by Jason Ardizzone-West.

3. Caroline, or Change (Roundabout/Studio 54, B): I was worried, loving the original production as I did, that this revival would disappoint me, but instead it thrilled me anew. Marvelously staged and designed, led by the powerhouse Sharon D Clarke (or her standby, an equal powerhouse Sharon Catherine Brown), this is the can't-miss revival I've been recommending to everyone.

Sharon D Clarke, center, as Caroline Thibodeaux, with the cast.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

4. Sanctuary City (NYTW/Lucille Lortel, Off-B): NYTW's production was scuttled when the theaters shut down in 2020, but this powerful play got a second life when the Lortel hosted it upon reopening. Stunning, devastating, and tense until the final moment, this production was so unmissable I also paid for the online stream to watch it again.

Jasai Chase-Owens and Sharlene Cruz as B and G. Photo by Joan Marcus.

5. Kimberly Akimbo (Atlantic Theater Company, Off-B): I loved it I loved it I loved it. Moving and uplifting and hilarious and charming and odd.

Victoria Clark as Kimberly. Photo by Ahron R. Foster.

6. Thoughts of a Colored Man (Golden, B): So damn good with a dynamic ensemble and a pitch-perfect blend of style and voice.

Da'Vinchi and Dyllon Burnside. Photo by Julieta Cervantes.

7. Trouble in Mind (Roundabout /American Airlines, B): Both timeless and timely, Alice Childress's play made its long-awaited Broadway debut, reminding us that conversations about representation are not new, and that the people most able to tell their own stories need a platform to do so.

Brandon Micheal Hall, LaChanze, and Chuck Cooper as John Nevins,
Wiletta Mayer, and Sheldon Forrester. Photo by Joan Marcus.

8. Is This A Room and Dana H (Vineyard/Lyceum, B): This pair of docuplays were astounding on their own and somehow even more compelling in conversation with each other, as they balanced fidelity to truth with the metaphor inherent in theatrical storytelling. Both closed prematurely but I am grateful I was able to see them.

Emily Davis as Reality Winner in Is This A Room and Dierdre O'Connell as
Dana Higginbotham in Dana H. Photos by Chad Batka.

9. Merry Wives (The Public/Shakespeare in the Park, Off-B): Joyful and silly. For sure one of Shakespeare's weaker works, but in Joceyln Bioh's delightfully updated script, in the vibrant designs by Dede Ayite and Beowulf Boritt, and in all of us joyfully back in the Delacorte, it was a treat of an evening.
Jacob Ming-Trent and Susan Kelechi Watson as Falstaff and Madam Nkechi
Ford. Photo by Joan Marcus.

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